About this Recording
8.110876 - MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder / Symphony No. 4 (Ferrier) (1945, 1949)

Great Singers: Kathleen Ferrier: Kindertotenlieder • Symphony No

Great Singers: Kathleen Ferrier: Kindertotenlieder • Symphony No. 4


At the time when these two pioneering recordings were made, the music of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was still comparatively little known. In Austria it was rarely played in the years following his death, and during the Nazi period (1933-1945) his music was banned in Germany, a ban extended to Austria, after the annexation of that country in March 1938. In Britain and America performances were few and far between, and the composer’s music was considered box-office death. The situation has changed radically in the last fifty years when recordings of complete cycles of his symphonies abound and his vocal music is equally well represented on disc.


The song cycle Kindertotenlieder, settings of words by Friedrich Rückert, dates from the years 1901-04, between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Three of the songs date from 1901 and two were added in 1904. Mahler had witnessed several of his brothers (Ernst, Alois and Otto) die in childhood and been deeply affected by these tragedies. He later wrote: “I tried to put myself in the position of a man who had lost his own child”. (His daughter Maria would die of diphtheria three years later.) The orchestration used is spare, with horns as the only brass, but there is a wonderful, lambent expressiveness in his settings.


The English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) had a brief but glorious decade of music-making before being cruelly struck down in her prime with cancer. She had first come to prominence in wartime Britain but by the end of the Second World War was in a position to travel overseas and justly become an internationally recognised performer. Her first contact with the conductor Bruno Walter (1876-1962) came about through two performances of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the inaugural Edinburgh Festival in 1947. She had been recommended to the conductor by the Festival’s organisers and the chemistry between the two performers clicked immediately. Walter later commented: “Here was potentially one of the great singers of our time”. Later that year she again sang under the conductor in a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in London and it was Walter who introduced her to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, which she first sang in a BBC broadcast in November 1947. The following year she would again sing the cycle in Holland in the spring and, later, under Barbirolli in Manchester in October. Walter and Ferrier gave three further performances in 1949, two in Edinburgh and one in London, prior to making this recording.


The idea for the recording had come from Bruno Walter. The problem was that the singer was under contract to the Decca Record Company in London and the conductor to Columbia Records in the United States. Initially Decca declined to release Ferrier and she was understandably furious. “Can’t you see with all this competition [other artists] what an honour it is for you [Decca], as well as me, to be singled out to have to borrow an artist? … but the honour of appearing on a label with Bruno Walter would put me in the top flight of artists, both here and Europe”. Reluctantly Decca conceded to her request on the understanding that Walter would be able to record for Decca on a reciprocal basis at a later date. (This would be for Das Lied von der Erde in May 1952.) There was one further problem in that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was at the time under exclusive contract to EMI. All was resolved, however, and the recording would be made in London. This collaboration, rare at the time, brought about a very moving and poignant realisation of Mahler’s song cycle. As Ferrier wrote shortly after the sessions: “Am thrilled that Decca let me record for Columbia … Only hope they are all right [the songs]. We heard the playbacks and he [Walter] was thrilled to bits. So hope the finished article is all right”.


The origins of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony date back to 1892, when he composed the finale. He then put the work aside until 1899-1900. He would subsequently revise the symphony between 1901 and 1910. As in the two preceding symphonies, the composer employs voices, in this instance just a solo soprano in the finale, using a text from the settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. First given under the composer himself in Munich in November 1901, this work is the simplest of its genre, displaying an almost classical spirit. Gone is the pessimism and darkness of earlier symphonies, and the composer dispensed with trombones and tuba, reduced the brass forces and employed a translucent orchestration.


The first movement begins with flutes and tinkling bells and is dominated by the attractive main theme given out by the violins, thereby creating a cheerful and sunny atmosphere. The ensuing scherzo, with a trio approximating to a Ländler, is darker in tone. Incidentally, Mahler has the solo violin tuned a tone higher to create an additional effect. The third movement grows increasingly complex and agitated before the jubilant clamour from the whole orchestra erupts as if to open the gates of Paradise and take us into another world. In the finale the soprano sings of the heavenly joys of life, the mood sounding almost childlike in its character.


Bruno Walter had known Mahler personally, working as his assistant at the Hamburg Opera between 1894 and 1896 and later in Vienna in 1901. He had witnessed and heard the composer rehearse and perform his music, and was therefore well versed in the right approach to these works. Following Mahler’s death Walter gave the world premières of both Das Lied von der Erde (1911) and the Ninth Symphony (1912). Two decades later he would make the first recordings of these works live in Vienna, the latter just two months before Nazi Germany annexed Austria. The conductor then lived in Lugano, Switzerland, becoming a French citizen and conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in both concert and recording. He moved to the United States in November 1939, becoming an American citizen in 1946, before dying in Beverly Hills, California in 1962.


The enterprising Columbia Records snapped up a considerable number of émigré musicians who had earlier been recording in Europe. Walter made his first recordings for the label in January 1941, continuing for another two decades. It is ironic that this recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony took place just two days after the German surrender to Allied forces in Europe. The soprano soloist he chose was Desi Halban, the daughter of the dramatic coloratura soprano Selma Kurz (1874-1933). Incidentally, the first recording of the work was made by the Japanese Parlophone Company in May 1930 in a performance conducted by Hildemayo Konoye, with the soprano Sakaye Kitasaya singing the last movement in a Japanese translation. This recording, virtually unknown outside Japan, was issued world-wide on CD in 1988.


Walter’s approach to the symphony is much lighter, even more pastoral and appropriately Viennese compared to that adopted by his Dutch counterpart Willem Mengelberg in his famous 1939 live performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The playing of the German conductor’s woodwind is possibly slightly perkier, even tart. True, Walter does not make the climax on the dissonance quite as deep or profound when compared with more recent interpretations. In the second movement the solo violinist sounds suitably sinister and diabolical. Walter adopts a broad and noble tempo for the following movement and is very true to the composer’s marking of “restful”. The tempo, however, for the finale is fairly brisk and Halban’s distinctive voice, whilst intrinsically not tonally particularly attractive, gives a certain character to the vocal part.


It was with this symphony that Bruno Walter bade farewell to Europe in Vienna in May 1960, less than two years before he died.


Malcolm Walker


Producer’s Note


The Fourth Symphony was originally recorded on 33 1/3 rpm lacquer master discs, which were then dubbed to 78 rpm wax masters for issue on sonically-compromised shellac records. The lacquers were also later used as the basis for tape transfers for LP release, where the wide frequency range and relatively quiet surfaces of the original masters could be heard to better advantage. The current transfer has been made from the best portions of several LP pressings, which preserve some of the flaws inherent in the original lacquers (occasional thumps toward the end of the first movement; some squeaking noises during the third movement), but which also present the sound with a fidelity years ahead of its time. By the time of the Kindertotenlieder session, recordings were being made on magnetic tape. Although there are occasional dropouts in these early tape efforts, the original sound (here again transferred from an LP) remains quite vivid.


Mark Obert-Thorn


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