C1973. PIERRE BOULEZ Cond. Paris Opéra Orch.: Symphony #10 in F-sharp: - Adagio; w. YVONNE MINTON & JON VICKERS: DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (both Mahler) (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1276, Live Performance, 20 Feb., 1981. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This is the second live DAS LIED VON DER ERDE from St. Laurent Studio that features the incomparable Jon Vickers blazing his way through the tenor part. Both versions are essential for serious Mahler collectors who want to hear him, but since this performance under Pierre Boulez in 1981 is markedly different from William Steinberg’s from 1970, I’ll offer a comparison as I go. The tenor part is so demanding and the first song lies so high that only a handful of tenors on disc have been successful, and even fewer absolutely thrilling. Vickers is among the latter - he drives the performance in his three songs, dominating the orchestra and making it impossible to tear one’s attention away.
It was his misfortune to record DAS LIED commercially with Colin Davis on Philips in 1984, a disc greeted with keen disappointment because of Davis’ indifferent conducting, which seems to have put his two soloists - Jessye Norman sang the mezzo part - out of sorts. No one sounds comfortable in their role. Whether under Boulez or Steinberg, Vickers sounds like a different singer, not only commanding in his vocal delivery but shading the melodic line with apparent ease where other tenors are struggling to keep their heads above water. Vickers had an immediately identifiable timbre, as do all the greatest singers, and the sound could have an edge on certain vowels (long ‘e’ in particular), and stylistically he made up his own rules. (Vickers was the most magnificent Verdi tenor who sounded as if he had learned Italian from a correspondence course).
Singing Mahler he doesn’t sound echt Deutsch like Julius Patzak or Jonas Kaufmann, to mention the other tenors I wouldn’t want to be without in this work. If the only issue were resplendence of voice, this Boulez performance wins hands down, particularly in the first song, ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, where Vickers is nothing short of stupendous. The distant miking in Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1970 [C1742] diminishes some of the visceral and emotional impact that comes through in Paris 11 years later. On both occasions Vickers’ voice remains unchanged.
But one singer having a great night does not a complete performance make. Turning to the mezzo soloist, Maureen Forrester and Yvonne Minton were both Mahler specialists, but under Steinberg Forrester gives of her best, while Minton, on the verge of a period of vocal troubles, sounds a little unsteady and at times slightly off pitch. There’s also a difference in musical insight: Forrester sings with absorbing expression and personality, making Minton sound not nearly as memorable. By my lights Steinberg takes the final glorious ‘Abschied’ too fast at 26:29, but Forrester adapts beautifully and manages to convey the depth of the music’s emotional reach without ever seeming to rush. Boulez is slower at 27:54, giving Minton more room for expression, which she takes excellent advantage of. One is reminded that even in a patchy period she was a dominant Mahler singer, and Boulez much favored her, as did Solti earlier.
As for the remainder of the conducting, Boulez mercilessly rushes the second tenor song, forcing Vickers to bark out syllables and refusing to give him room for the kind of expressive singing he does so beautifully for Steinberg. The tenor’s third song is taken at a more normal tempo, and Vickers is splendid on both occasions. Minton is challenged by Boulez’s unreasonably quick pace in her second song, ‘Von der Schönheit’. Famous or infamous, as you will, for his sped-up PARSIFAL at Bayreuth, Boulez seems to be testing out the same tactic here, to bad effect. Fortunately, this applies only to the three very short inner songs.
It is evident that the Paris Opéra Orchestra is not on safe ground, and their marginal Mahler experience puts them at a double disadvantage against the Boston Symphony, the second disadvantage being that the BSO sounded like a revitalized orchestra during Steinberg’s brief tenure (1969–1972) after the despondency of the Leinsdorf years. Although not known for Mahler, Steinberg does justice to the orchestral part of DAS LIED without crossing the line into sounding inspired. Reliable traditionalism was his forte, as it is here.
The Boulez disc is generously filled out with the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony. At 20 minutes, it too is fast-paced and could use more room to expand to its full emotional effect. But Boulez’s conducting is knowing and sensitive, so the performance is an asset. The strings do a more than credible job to bring out the music’s poignancy; at no point, however, do we get the tragic import of Bernstein or Tennstedt. Mahler without tears was the hallmark of Boulez’s approach. He is actually more passionate here than he often was.
It’s not easy to be objective about Mahler, but I’ve tried to demarcate the differences between the two choices that face purchasers. I’m grateful to producer Yves St. Laurent for remastering both releases so expertly, and the results are more than listenable no matter which recording you prefer. My choice is definitely for the Steinberg-BSO performance [C1742], but the thrill of Vickers in the first song under Boulez is unforgettable.
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE