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Kleiber’s Das Lied: Once and Never Again

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Jeremy Lee writes

Pirate issues of Carlos Kleiber’s one and only performance of a Mahler work–Das Lied von der Erde with the Wiener Symphoniker–have been circulating amongst cognoscenti and Kleiber fans, and on my first listening of this performance on Youtube a few years ago I was quite put off by the scratchy sound canvas and almost complete lack of instrumental detail.  Thankfully the house label of the Wiener Symphoniker has gained access to the radio master-tapes and done a painstaking official remastering that reveals Kleiber’s intense direction in the most sonically truthful light.  This remastering gives the recording much more presence and clarity, and while the sonics as they are now are still far from perfect (still a bit lacking in dynamic range and color, and there is some dropout and distortion in the loud bits) they are to be blamed on the antediluvian recording techniques employed by the ORF at that time (recorded in 1967, sounding like 1947) rather than the remastering.

Onto Kleiber’s performance:  that he could inspire a second-rate orchestra as the VSO to play with such alertness, precision and passion is a miracle.  In this extremely texturally and rhythmically complex work there are plenty of chances to induce a trainwreck (major or minor)–witness Giulini and Fassbaender’s near-death experience in their 1989 live performance with the VSO’s more glamorous countrymen–yet Kleiber and co. manage to hold the work together in a performance almost free from any sort of mistakes (trumpet and woodwind fluffs, and some slightly staggered attacks eg. the final note of the first movement, can be counted with the fingers of one hand).  Interpretation-wise Kleiber did not impose lots of ear-catching ideas into the music, but what he delivers is a performance full of vivacity, fire and honest musicality.  He propels the first movement to devastating heights of intensity while imbuing the fifth song with thrilling hedonism that at times turns schizophrenically unpredictable, and he also lets loose the reins of the horses in the fourth to exhilarating effect without straining the orchestra or the contralto.  Maybe there are darker, more doom-laden interpretations of the final movement, and Kleiber’s pace (timing of the last track is 26:50, applause included) isn’t what you’d call relaxed, but then this allows Kleiber to inject great sense of urgency and propulsiveness in many of the orchestral interludes (particularly the short one before “Die Erde atmet voll von Ruh’ und Schlaf”, and of course the massive funeral march that too often gets bogged down by a heavy hand and an inattentive ear).  The transcendent coda beginning with “Die liebe Erde allüberall blüht auf im Lenz und grünt” has rarely been delivered with such fluidity and lovingness, and Kleiber wisely takes his time in the final mantra, allowing the music to disintegrate in a weightless, hypnotising manner.  The audience, however, doesn’t allow much time for the sonorities to trail away before they explode in enthusiastic applause.

With regards to the soloists, and considering contralto versions only, this version has probably the best duo since Klemperer’s classic recording with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig.  Here we have Klemperer’s contralto paired with Waldemar Kmentt, a tenor who also participated with Ludwig in Klemperer’s Beethoven 9.  Both soloists appear to be on top form here.  Kmentt has a huge, full tenor which never strains at the top of his register; while Wunderlich probably needed the aid of the microphone to enhance the size of his voice, Kmentt’s projection goes vastly further.  He relishes the dangerous first song with plenty of passion and ringing top notes, and in the patter-like third song he gives admirable delicacy and clean diction, but nobody I have heard so far has astounded me with such wild abandon as Kmentt delivers in the fifth song–not even James King for Bernstein.  Ludwig of course possess one of the most ravishing contraltos anywhere, let alone Das Lied, and this time she adds to her beautiful tone a heightened intensity and a wider range of expressivity that is missing from her studio performance three years ago.  In the second song she achieves an otherworldly sense of loneliness and melancholy, and in the fourth song’s central episodes Kleiber’s propulsive manner seems to have rubbed off on her (much more than Klemperer ever did).  Her big solo in Abschied leaves nothing to be desired:  her purity of tone, phrasing and diction sustained my attention throughout, and her voice seems to take on a new, raptured form as she repeats the mantra at the very end.

An exceptional performance in every way.  For me the performance it most resembles is, interestingly, Bernstein’s on Decca dating from 1966, with all the passion and excitement minus the histrionics that many a critic complained about.  In its sonically most updated form, I don’t see any reason why anyone would hesitate in buying this disc.

UPDATE:  A few hours after publishing this review, I received news that Waldemar Kmentt has just died.  Top Ear extends our deepest condolences to Kmentt’s family.


  • Album name:  Mahler:  Das Lied von der Erde
  • Performers:  Waldemar Kmentt (tenor) Christa Ludwig (contralto);  Carlos Kleiber (conductor);  Wiener Symphoniker
  • Label:  Wiener Symphoniker WS 007
  • Sonics:  Mono ADD
  • Total playing time:  58:40

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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