Leading the field in Das Lied von der Erde

Leading the field in Das Lied von der Erde


norman lebrecht

December 19, 2021

In my book Why Mahler I dealt too brusquely with one recording from 1972, chiefly because the BBC’s Northern Symphony Orchestra fell some way short of brilliant and the acoustic was uninviting. I listened to the record again last night on learning of the death of its tenor John Mitchinson and must make amends for the relatively short shrift I first gave it.

In almost every respect – apart from orchestral force and sound refinement – this is one of the outstanding Das Lieds of all time.

The orchestra, I recall, had never played Das Lied before and the conductor, Jasca Horenstein, was given extra rehearsal. A Viennese refugee who made the first Mahler vocal record back in 1927, Jascha Horenstein was so smitten with Das Lied that, asked soon after on his deathbed what he would miss, he said: never being able to conduct this work again.

Where Mahler punishes the tenor with high notes at full blast, Horenstein tamped back the orchestra just enough to enable Mitchinson to shine. The Lancashire contralto Alfreda Hodgson, barely 30 at the time and destined to die at 51, was steered into a restrained, unshowy, pinpoint performance. The whole interpretation is otherworldly.

Others may swear by Bruno Walter and (especially) Otto Klemperer with star soloists in this piece, but Horenstein adds a dimension of personal sensitivity and educational uplift. His soloists transcend the difficulties as if they never existed.

To my mind, this is one of the great Mahler recordings of all time.


  • Nosema says:

    Thought it was Paul Kletzki that said that……

    • Having been with Kletzki on his deathbed when he died rehearsing the Eroica with the RLPO in 1972 I don’t recall him saying that.

    • J Barcelo says:

      I thought Horenstein said that the worst thing about dying was never being able to HEAR Das Lied again. Can’t make my mind up about Horenstein’s Mahler – is there any that isn’t compromised by sound quality, orchestral playing or some other issue? In any case my favorite DLVDE ever happens to be…Kletzki.

      • Mike Nelson says:

        It’s really too bad some of the great mid 20th century conductors didn’t live into the late 1960’s,so we could hear their work in modern sound!

      • David K. Nelson says:

        And my memory is that it was a Bruno Walter quote about the worst thing about dying is not being able to hear, or was it conduct, Das Lied again. Maybe all three of them said it or something like it. Or at least thought it.

        Stokowski by contrast said that the BEST thing about dying is that he’d be able to shake Tchaikovsky’s hand and thank him for the music.

        Horenstein can’t be called an under-rated conductor because I am not aware of anyone who does not rate him very highly.
        But he always seemed under-known and for a very long time, under-recorded. Fortunately he had a nice career resurgence towards the end but I remember an interview in High Fidelity magazine during that autumnal career resurgence where he said frankly that his career was what it was because he refused the second-rate appointments and the first-rate appointments were never offered to him. So, with a few exceptions he tended to record for lesser record companies, although the positive result for us was that some of Ivry Gitlis’s older recordings for the Vox label had Jascha Horenstein on the podium, although I believe that Horenstein like Alfred Brendel regretted some of the things that Vox released.

        Speaking as a one-time record reviewer I can fully understand and appreciate that disappointment with and aversion to the recorded sound can, in the work-a-day world of trying to scribble reactions and submit copy, come at the cost of giving a recording the careful and complete listening it deserves, but often simply cannot get for practical reasons. And then we remember the reaction but not the reasons for it and do not go back to re-listen. It’s hard enough to keep up.

        Let me give a personal example: the Toscanini/Artur Rubinstein recording (from an NBC broadcast) of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3. If you knew the performance, as I did, from the dead-as-a-doornail acoustic and RCA Victor’s brutal karate-chop 78 rpm side endings, it all came across as rushed, arbitrary, and unworthy of either artist but most particularly Rubinstein. Early LP reissues addressed the side endings but not the choked, airless sound — even fake reverb was not going to help. An RCA CD reissue that ignored the 78s and went back to the original airchecks of the broadcast resulted in hearing more virtues in the performance, still not the ideal, but at least no longer actively disagreeable, because the sonic perspective was quite different, and better.

        Changes of opinion, or at least hearing virtues previously not acknowledged, would be more common if there were more opportunities for critics to have the time to rehear stuff, not to mention that there are not many platforms to publish these second thoughts. Maybe that is where being a former reviewer/critic has its advantages — there is no new pile of stuff arriving daily that makes such rehearing unlikely or even impossible. (And changes of opinion can go the other way, too, from favorable to not or at least to luke-warm.)

  • Joel Lazar says:

    Having been there for the rehearsals and sessions, I couldn’t agree more.

    • Alank says:

      Would be interested in hearing more of Lazar’s reminisces since he was an assistant to the great conductor. A lecture in DC where we both reside would be great! Hint Hint!

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Saw him a number of times at WNO and Alfreda did a great performance of the Messiah in Cardiff with Forbes Robinson.

  • MacroV says:

    I’ve had this recording for years, recommended by other commentators who are big fans of Horenstein. It’s a love rendition.

  • Angelo says:

    Wouldn’t the proper plural be “Die Lieder von den Erden?”

  • Sam says:

    Horenstein is unquestionably on of the greatest Mahlerians. His 3rd Symphony is simply astounding.

  • M says:

    The first one she married was Mahler
    Whose buddies all knew him as Gustav
    And each time he saw her he’d holler
    “Ach, that is the fräulein I moost hav”

    Their marriage, however, was murder
    He’d scream to the heavens above
    “I’m writing ‘Das Lied von der Erde’
    And she only wants to make love!”

    (Tom Lehrer)

  • M2N2K says:

    The conductor’s first name was Jascha.

  • George Neidorf says:

    The moral of the story; don’t take a critic’s opinion as gospel.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Interesting. In my later years, I am not a fan of Mahler’s music. But I have had this Horenstein recording for many, many years and have always loved the performance, the singing, and the conducting.

  • Steven Goulden says:

    Wonderful, thank you!

    Mitch was still giving it Das Lied some welly in his late 60’s! RIP JM


  • Michael Blim says:

    Horenstein: fabulous Mahler. Remember his 6th as an “Ur” recording.

  • Rob Keeley says:

    What exactly is ‘educational uplift’ when it’s at home?

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I don’t know much about John Mithinson, but I thought he was excellent on Bernstein’s underrated Mahler 8 on Columbia with the L.S.O. (Bernstein’s Part I is a misfire, but the Part II is wonderful!). I’ve always liked Horenstein’s “DLvdE”, and most of his Mahler in general. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call this one of the very best “DLvdE” recordings ever made, but it is good. Quite good.

    I’ve always really liked Janet Baker in this work, and she teamed up with John Mitchinson on a “DLvdE” recording with Raymond Leppard conducting (BBC Northern S.O.). That one got issued on BBC Legends, as well as another “DLvdE” that Janet Baker made with Rudolf Kempe (BBC S.O.). This is all in addition to the very fine Philips studio recording Baker made with James King and Bernard Haitink at the Concertgebouw. However, my favorite Janet Baker “DLvdE” recording is a ‘live’ one she made with Rafael Kubelik in 1970 (Waldemar Kmentt, tenor). That one got issued on the Audite label. All elements are excellent or very good on that recording: mezzo, tenor, conductor, orchestra and sound quality. All boxes checked off, so difficult to beat.

  • Wolfgang Schaufler says:

    This recording made my day. Thank you for posting.
    Time stands still …

    Alban Berg attended the world-premiere in Munich (together with Anton Webern)
    and allegedly said afterwards: “Gegen Mahler können wir alle einpacken.”
    (Against Mahler we all can go home)

  • Wally Francis says:

    Top marks Norman for having the courage and honesty to say you made an initial mistake, but upon further reflection [hearings really] you have revised your view/opinion.

    What a great shame other regular contributors on this site
    cannot be so reflective and humble in their views and comments.

    • Shalom Rackovsky says:

      It isn’t that the denizens of SD can’t be reflective and humble in their views and comments. They could- but they don’t believe that they make mistakes.

  • Bob68 says:

    Walter/Ferrier is the best…

  • BrianB says:

    For a very different view on Horenstein, check out Dave Hurwitz on you tube, The Most Overrated Recordings in the Universe.

  • Misha says:

    Well worth attention is Horenstein’s other recording of Das Lied with James King, Birgit Finnila and the Stockholm Philharmonic, recorded live in 1968. I like it as much if not more than the BBC version, except that Finnila isn’t as expressive as Alfreda Hodgson. The Stockholm recording was recently published for the first time on the HDTT label.