BBC Legends – Janet Baker [Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody & Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde]

0 of 5 stars

Mahler
Das Lied von der Erde
Brahms
Rhapsody for contralto, men’s chorus and orchestra, Op.53

Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) & John Mitchinson (tenor)

BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra
Raymond Leppard [Mahler]


Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Men’s Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult

Brahms recorded 6 November 1968 in Royal Festival Hall, London; Mahler recorded 22 February 1977 in Free Trade Hall, Manchester


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: November 2008
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
BBCL 4243-2
Duration: 79 minutes

Lieder-like intensity with broader emotional declamation and the gorgeous flowing melody of the second section glows. This is the best performance of the work I have heard.

Unfortunately, the Mahler is compromised by Raymond Leppard’s unidiomatic conducting. Throughout the work the use of portamento and soupy phrasing comes close to schmalz. He fails to mould lines and to allow them to rise and fall, and there is a tendency to see each movement as a series of episodes. The net result is that the orchestra sounds as though it is an accompaniment rather than an equal partner.

Additionally the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now BBC Philharmonic) was not world-class back in 1977. There are ensemble lapses and the strings lack body. Crucially, at “Die liebe Erde” in the final-movement ‘Abschied’ they are unable to ‘sing’ at the marked pianissimo. Nor do the woodwinds have sufficient character.

Fortunately, the singers are magnificent. John Mitchinson is one of those under-valued and almost forgotten artists, but here he can stand comparison with the likes of Vickers and King. In the first song the tessitura holds no terrors for him and he is capable of paring the voice to down to subtle pianissimos. The covered tone at “Du” in the second stanza is particularly effective. ‘Von der Jugend’ has lilt and bounce and there is a sway to ‘Der Tunkene in Frühling’. Nonetheless, you do wonder if a heroic tenor is the right voice for this music. The likes of Waldemar Kmentt, Julius Patzak and Fritz Wunderlich are better suited to the lightness of the role and can easily surmount the difficulties of the opening setting. But amongst heldentenors Mitchinson has few peers.

For many the chance to hear Baker at the height of her powers will be the main reason for acquiring this performance and she doesn’t disappoint. The tempo for ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ is too slow, but Baker compensates with a beautifully detailed reading of the text without ever sacrificing the line. Here “kalter” really sounds cold and the final “aufzutrucken” is an afterthought, suffused with hymn-like despair. In ‘Von der Schönheit’ the final verse is a miracle of tonal and dynamic shading and variable vibrato. Unfortunately the depiction of young men galloping along the shore starts at allegro and ends up as a presto, which Baker somehow negotiates, but it comes close to sounding like a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song!

‘Das Abschied’ is an object lesson in the art of singing and interpreting Mahler. Once again there is enormous attention to detail and the line and structure are never lost. The sense of profound loss and melancholy are overwhelming and heart-rendingly intense and beautiful. Mahler-singing really doesn’t come any better than this.

A number of people have fond memories of a 1969 account of ‘Das Lied’ with Baker and Barbirolli in the Royal Festival Hall. Now, if there exists a tape of that… !

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