AOM Logo September 1999

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra

Michelle DeYoung, soprano; Jon Villars, tenor

Reference Recordings RR-88CD

Playing Time: 66:37

Anthony Kershaw
Record Cover Image

Recordings of Gustav Mahler's great Song Symphony continue to enter the market with surprising regularity. Recordings from DGG, Naxos, and now, Reference Recordings, have joined the fray. My thoughts on the new star studded DGG performance can be found elsewhere in Audiophilia. Difficult to cast, sing, play, conduct, and record, Das Lied continues to elude all but the finest of musicians and engineers. As such, choosing Das Lied for a project must take the utmost confidence. Was the Reference team's confidence justified? Compared to the greatest recordings, I count the new Reference performance a qualified success.

If top-notch sound is important, look no further. Once again, the engineering of Prof. Keith Johnson is a marvel of clarity, warmth, and power. A recent interview at the 1999 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show shows the co-inventor of HDCD® and President of Spectral to be, like his recordings, a model of clarity and warmth. On this recording, the Minnesota Orchestra is bathed in the most luminous light, allowing conductor Oue's vision of the music a lovely setting. Flutes, triangle, cymbals, and piccolo sparkle, while lower instruments growl in despair. The last song, Der Abscheid (The Farewell), a song of great melancholy, contains some of the deepest and most penetrating of Mahler's orchestrations. I have not heard the cavernous opening recorded so clearly. This, and numerous other moments, makes this the ultimate Das Lied recording.

As for the performance? Like all I know, save one, this one must carry some qualifications. The orchestra plays well, helped in no small way by the clarity of Eiji Oue's interpretation. Oue prefers faster speeds, not stopping to smell the flowers in the more relaxed songs. The two "drinking" songs respond well to Oue's tempos, and the orchestra follows his direction with great skill. Solo horn, flute, piccolo, and violin deserve special mention, although I admit to being perplexed by the distant and unfocused oboe sound in the final song. Sad, as the part is so important, and pales when compared to the other solo playing. I am unsure whom to thank for the brilliant way in which the string's contrapuntal lines of the complex opening and closing songs are heard. Is it the engineer's recording or the conductor's interpretive skill? A combination of both, probably.

Both Jon Villars and Michelle DeYoung acquit themselves very well in unrelentingly difficult parts. That they compare well to the greatest Das Lied performance by Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig (with Otto Klemperer conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI CDC 7 47231 2) bodes well for future releases, for in the EMI performance, one finds some of the greatest singing of this century. Villars has the vocal and emotional range to tackle the meaning Mahler imbues, but coupled with a lieder quality one would not think suitable for the work. It works, and is quite refreshing. Michelle DeYoung is blessed of fine voice, with the power needed to float over the orchestra effortlessly. Her crescendos are reminiscent of Jessye Norman and Kathleen Ferrier at their best. Miss DeYoung's wide vibrato may not be to everyone's taste, but her musicality wins the day.

An excellent, if not great performance, then, recorded brilliantly, and highlighting the qualities of two fine young American singers. Thus, lovers of Das Lied may purchase with confidence.

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