William Steinberg, Vol. VII;  - BSO - Maureen Forrester & Jon Vickers - Das Lied von der Erde (Mahler)  (St Laurent Studio YSL T-880)
Item# C1742
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William Steinberg, Vol. VII;  - BSO - Maureen Forrester & Jon Vickers - Das Lied von der Erde (Mahler)  (St Laurent Studio YSL T-880)
C1742. WILLIAM STEINBERG Cond. Boston Symphony Orchestra, w.MAUREEN FORRESTER & JON VICKERS: Das Lied von der Erde (Mahler). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-880, Live Performance, 2 Jan., 1970, Symphony Hall, Boston. [This glorious live performance beautifully displays the splendor of the Symphony Hall acoustic.] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.


“Mahler composed this song cycle in the summer of 1908. Originally subtitled a SYMPHONY IN SONGS, it was to have been his Ninth Symphony. But the composer, already very ill (he was to die less than three years later) and possibly remembering that his predecessors Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner had said their farewells to the world with a Ninth, transferred that fatal number to his next (and last fully completed) work, a purely instrumental one. DAS LIED VON DER ERDE was first performed after the composer's death by his friend and protege Bruno Walter in Munich on November 10, 1911. The work is an intensely personal farewell to life by a doomed man. ‘Earth is about to vanish from his sight’, writes Walter in his biography of his mentor, ‘another air is wafted in, another light shines overhead, and thus it turns out to be an entirely new work of Mahler's: it has a new style of composition, a new kind of invention, of instrumentation and of movement technique’. The last movement, a nearly half-hour-long elegy, concludes with an unresolved chord accompanying the words ‘Ewig, Ewig’ (forever and ever) which, in the words of another eminent conductor-author, Erich Leinsdorf expresses a most desperate longing to come to terms with eternity. To end a work without a resolution, leaving everything to unending time, was an original invention.”

- Ned Ludd

“William Steinberg is one of those conductors highly respected by musicians and critics familiar with his work, but who never developed the kind of public acclaim accorded to some of his contemporaries. His relative neglect is partly due to Steinberg’s long association with the Pittsburgh Symphony, an orchestra whose reputation, while good, was not seen as front rank. Many collectors prized his recordings with Pittsburgh on the Command label (and his EMI discs too), but in those days there was more glamour associated with Charles Munch in Boston, George Szell in Cleveland, and Fritz Reiner in Chicago.

It has been widely reported that the Boston Symphony board wanted to appoint Steinberg to replace Munch in 1963 when Munch announced his retirement, but RCA pressured them to engage Erich Leinsdorf instead. (Yes, there was a time when record companies wielded the kind of power that enabled them to do such things.) After Leinsdorf left, Steinberg did get the job (1969–1972), but he was in failing health and tried to hold down both Boston and Pittsburgh. It didn’t work very well. He left Boston after four seasons but remained with Pittsburgh until 1976. He died in New York City in 1978.

I am aware of only two prior Mahler recordings under Steinberg: a First Symphony for EMI (on Capitol Records) and a live Cologne Radio ‘Resurrection’ Symphony from 1965 issued by ICA Classics. Both demonstrated a conductor well attuned to Mahler’s idiom. Now comes this thrilling DAS LIED VON DER ERDE from his Boston years, and it is a revelation. At 56:15 (there are 30 seconds of applause included in the timing in the headnote) this is the fastest performance in my collection, which contains 26 recordings. They range from 58:05 (Walter, NYPO) to 69:07 (Horenstein, BBC Northern). However, in no way does Steinberg sound rushed or driven.

Steinberg exhibits a complete grasp of Mahler’s structure, even in the half-hour long ‘Abschied,’ so that the music is always going somewhere with purpose. Every phrase leads inevitably into the next and follows naturally from its predecessor. Orchestral balances and textures are very well judged, and very well recorded by the broadcast engineers at FM station WCRB in Boston. While there are very slight occasional instrumental slips of the kind that always occur in live performance, for the most part the BSO plays magnificently for Steinberg. The orchestra had more experience with this score than I would have guessed. Serge Koussevitzky conducted it in multiple performances in four different seasons (1928–19, 1930–31, 1936–37, and 1939–40). In addition, concertmaster Richard Burgin led performances in 1943–4, 1949–50, and 1960–61, so by the 1969–70 season a great many of the musicians had the music in their fingers. (What a shame that RCA never chose to record any Mahler with Koussevitzky).

I might make this performance Exhibit A if I were trying to prove that tempo alone doesn’t define a performance. There is not one moment here that sounds rushed, despite unusually quick tempos in most of the movements. The reason for that is Steinberg’s very natural grasp of phrase-shaping, alongside his subtle and effective application of rubato. He has also inspired the players, perhaps through rehearsal technique, to listen carefully to each other and to the singers. The result is a performance of great flexibility and beauty, a performance that, particularly in the immense final song, draws the listener completely in.

In the opening ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’ Steinberg balances forward motion and weighty sonorities to great effect, and Vickers is the rare tenor who can soar over Mahler’s powerful orchestration. That first song, in fact, is a good example of the virtues of Steinberg’s success in the entire work. The balance between incisiveness and warmth could not be better judged, so that neither quality is slighted. In the second song, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, Steinberg and Forrester are so flexible and supple in their phrasing that we are barely conscious of the fact that this is probably the most dramatically quick of the six movements.

Of course one huge plus is the rare combination of two virtually perfect soloists. Klemperer had that on his EMI recording with Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig, but I’m not convinced that Wunderlich would have been nearly as effective in the concert hall. Jon Vickers gave a fine performance for Philips (along with Jessye Norman), but a performance drained of emotion by Colin Davis’s bloodless conducting. Maureen Forrester recorded the work beautifully for RCA, but I have never warmed up to Fritz Reiner’s austere vision of the music (and Richard Lewis is certainly no Vickers). To have both singers in their prime in superb voice, makes this performance even more special.

St. Laurent Studio has done their usual superb job of transferring the originally excellent broadcast sound. As usual with this label, the production is bare bones: no notes but complete track listing. This is an important release in that it illuminates and preserves the art of one of the twentieth century’s significantly under-represented conductors in a deeply moving performance of Mahler’s great song cycle.”

- Henry Fogel, FANFARE