This is currently the only chance to get Barbirolli's reading of Das Lied (thanks to a private punter trying out his brand new tape machine, recording off the radio). That makes it an important issue even before you include Kathleen Ferrier with important differences from her performances with Walter (Vienna & New York) and a tenor who is probably the nearest you'll get to an ideal for this tricky part.
First, Barbirolli. This, as you would expect, is a totally committed, fervently passionate performance - Barbirolli-groans and all. There is a terrific thrust to the allegro of the first movement and the vision of the ape gibbering in the graveyard is truly terrifying. The porcelain figures of the third movement have just the right fragile delicacy and the drunken poet of the fifth is supported with convincing abandon. The Ferrier songs, of course, are a different kettle of fish. There is a zen-like concentration to the meandering string line of the second song from which the climax flowers with all the more passion for the contrast with what has come before. The flower-picking girls of the scherzo are rudely and urgently interrupted by the young men on horseback without reducing the singer to a meaningless, breathless gabble a la Bernstein. And as for the Abschied, Barbirolli manages to encompass all its differing moods with rare vision. It's easy to think of this long (1/2 hour) movement as just a succession of lonely wandering fragments of melody over minimal harmonies. But it is actually a thing of infinite variety and Barbirolli knows this. The lonely bird cries, the tone of resignation, the rising passion of remembered beauty and friendship, the huge funeral march that seems, in Barbirolli's hands, to be a paean for a whole beautiful glorious world, and the last hypnotic drift into eternity with Mahler's inspired interval of a 6th leaving the harmony as unresolved and infinite as the contralto's repeated 'Ever...ever' - Glorious John (VW's phrase) is alive to every one of them as he is to all the demands of his radiant, inimitable soloist.
Is it just Barbirolli's performance that makes this issue worth buying, then? Isn't Ferrier available in better sound on the classic Vienna performance with Bruno Walter - after all he talked the piece over with Mahler, conducted the first performance and presumable knew how it should go. Well, yes and no. That is certainly a classic performance and in far better sound. But, if you read Ferrier's letters and diaries, you get the impression that she was always somewhat in awe of Dr. Walter while she was a great personal friend of the Barbirollis - they frequently enjoyed knockabout North Country suppers, laced with her famous ribald sense of humour, after shows. The warmth, the humanity and the rapport between the two of them is palpable in this performance. He is sensitive to everything she wants to do and she to him, whereas you get a strong feeling she is always following Walter's lead. This allows her to be braver, to take more risks, and results in some glorious top notes. It would be a hard-hearted listener who wasn't reduced to tears by either of these Abschieds, but for that extra degree of rapport and warmth, my vote definitely goes to the Barbirolli.
And the much underrated Richard Lewis proves himself the ideal tenor for this tough-to-cast part. He has the heldentenor heft to ride the orchestra in the first movement (think of his singing of Achilles' war-cry in King Priam if you ever had the good fortune to hear it) and the delicacy for the third song bred of many a memorable Handel or Mozart performance.
The only drawback to this disc, it has to be admitted, is the sound. It is an amateur off-air recording: the first few bars are missing and the Abschied is prone to the sort of wireless interference we were all subject to in those days of home recording. The sound qua sound is not bad considering the circumstances but, of course, no match for Decca in Vienna. There is a fill-up - a Brahms Alto Rhapsody with Erik Tuxen from Norway - but this doesn't really add anything to Ferrier's familiar performance on Decca.
No, it is for the unique rapport between Our Kath and Sir John, for Richard Lewis's ideal tenor and for the only chance to hear Barbirolli in Das Lied that this disc is very special indeed.