Why should you or anyone care about a 24/192 download reissue of recordings of two Mahler song cycles that were made in Vienna and New York in 1968 by conductor Leonard Bernstein and three of his favorite singers, mezzo Christa Ludwig, her bass-baritone husband Walter Berry, and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? After all, the recordings are “old” and the music much older, all but one of the artists is dead, the language is German, and the reissue lacks lyrics and translations.
Because anyone who cares about the terrible costs of war, and the suffering it engenders, must hear the pain, anger, love, bitter irony, and eloquence that Mahler invested in his settings of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn.) Because anyone who has ever felt the heart-rending mixture of pleasure and pain at the core of love won and lost owes it themselves to hear Mahler’s four-song cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a Wayfarer). Because everything that people value about Bernstein’s way with Mahler, and his affinity for Mahler’s window on joy and suffering, can be heard in these miraculous recordings. And because Ludwig (b. 1928) and Berry (1929–2000), who join Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic on the first cycle, and Fischer-Dieskau (1925–2012), who joins Bernstein on piano on the second, are some of the most expressive and wondrously voiced singers of the late mono and earlier stereo era, and in their absolute prime in 1968.
True, some may find the original recording’s dynamic compression and sound a bit dated, or the lack of translations (easily found on the Web) a major hindrance. Hopefully, they will get over it, and do whatever necessary to find lyrics they can follow. These performances are devastating in their emotional commitment.
Let’s take Bernstein’s contributions first. You will not find a single phrase, not even a single instrumental entrance, that has not been carefully pondered and executed with emotional truth in mind. Bernstein’s conducting is breathtaking precisely because he understands everything Mahler wrote as an expression of tortured genius. Listen, for example, to how Bernstein varies the NYPO’s violin tone from magically translucent and luminous to biting, often within the same song. Marvel at how he coaxes the same virtually symphonic range of color and feeling from his piano’s 88 keys, and is absolutely one with the insights that Fischer-Dieskau expresses through vocal shading, dynamics, and word painting. How many conductors can stretch phrases as long as Bernstein does without losing tension, or make each pause and space between notes as telling as the notes themselves?
Fischer-Dieskau has often been criticized for his vocal micro-management, which is another way of saying that he can strive so hard to shade every word and syllable that he can actually draw attention away from the music. Not here, however. With his vocal resources in prime shape, and a pianist/partner as sensitive as Bernstein, he finds a balance that works. Fischer-Dieskau’s honeyed sweetness on top, and ability to sing in the same range with biting vehemence, are totally put in service of Mahler’s music. His is a once-in-a-generation voice, employed with supreme intelligence.
Then there is the team of Ludwig and Berry. With Ludwig’s 90th birthday currently celebrated by bargain box-set reissues from Deutsche Grammophon and Warner—Warner’s tribute consists mainly of song cycle recordings that are available in CD format with translations, and stream-able on Tidal in hi-rez MQA—this is the perfect time to acquaint yourself with her brilliance. The voice is rich beyond belief, and the emotional range awe-inspiring. In Des Knaben Wunderhorn, she tears your heart out one minute, and sets you laughing the next.
A love of Ludwig leads to my very personal connection with this recording. Although I seem to have lost the LPs along the way, I bought this particular Wunderhorn collection way back. To this day, I recall my wonder at Ludwig’s performance of “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?” (Who thought up this ditty?), and her vocal consistency as she lightly skips up and down two octaves as though whistling the tune. (Believe me, this is anything but an easy song to whistle, especially if you understand the importance of maintaining a legato line as seamless as Ludwig’s.)
Berry’s reputation may have been eclipsed in some circles by Ludwig’s, but he is magnificent in this cycle. His militant anger booms out throughout the range, with tone simultaneously searing and beautiful, and his pain is palpable. (I recall another LP of the cycle that I owned, on which neither the sharp-edged, uningratiating Heinz Rehfuss or earth mother Maureen Forrester could approach the vocal and interpretive brilliance of Berry and Ludwig.)
This reissue is urgently recommended. It is, most definitely, a Recording to Die For.