Now this recording is out of copyright it is beginning to turn up on several labels (e.g. Naxos). It is, after all, a classic recording. However, it was Decca who recorded it and they therefore are the ones who have access to the originals. So this is probably the best transfer, worth the extra cost over its rivals.
Its status as a classic is well deserved. Walter was a close colleague of the composer, talked through the work with him and conducted the world premiere after Mahler's death. It was a piece he had lived with for more than 40 years by the time this recording was made and his interpretation therefore at least deserves serious respect. Of course, it merits much more than that. Walter loved this music and invested it with all the depth of humanity he brought to everything he conducted. There is appropriate weight and thrust to the opening Trinklied, a logically consistent flow to the meandering melodic lines of the Einsame im Herbst, Schubertian delicacy in Von der Jugend and so on right through to the yearnings and final resigned acceptance of Der Abschied. This, as you might expect from Walter, is a Das Lied viewed from the Mozart, Schubert, Brahms end of the telescope rather than as the forerunner of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and beyond. To that extent he could be said to smooth out some of the more abrasive orchestration, to soften the impact of the clashing harmonies in the great Funeral March and to try to integrate the often disparate and apparently unrelated contrapuntal melodic lines. For a contrasting point of view, you need to turn to Rattle, Boulez or, interestingly, Horenstein.
One of the chief raisons d'etre for this recording, of course, was the special relationship that had developed between Walter and Kathleen Ferrier. In the unique sound of that voice and in her special artistry, Walter felt he had at last found the perfect vehicle for this piece. And she doesn't disappoint. She gives a near-definitive performance of her three songs and especially of Der Abschied. The last outburst of love and regret for the 'liebe Erde' and the ensuing resignation that drifts into an infinity of repeated 'ewig...ewigs' over Mahler's achingly unresolved sixths in the harmony, these are heart-rending moments. If there is just the slightest note of reservation in my praise, it is that Ferrier (as her letters show) was rather in awe of Dr. Walter, particularly in this piece which was so much a part of his life. As a result she always seems to be following Walter's lead in this performance, without quite allowing herself the interpretive freedom she shows even in her live New York performance with him. But in her live performance with Barbirolli (on APR) the sympathy - empathy even - between the two close friends leads to greater freedom still, greater risk-taking on both their parts that I find all the more moving, despite the pretty dreadful sound quality.
Julius Patzak is also an integral part of this Vienna performance. The tenor role is a tough one, having to scale the heldentenor heights of the opening movement, the porcelain delicacy of the third and the drunken abandon of the fifth. Patzak doesn't have quite the ideal heft for the Trinklied and occasionally gets submerged in the orchestral swell, but he does bring a wonderfully plangent colouring to his voice in the 'Dunkel ist das Leben' refrain. There's a wealth of experience behind the subtle word-painting of Von der Jugend, however, and the Drunkard in Spring is also a perfect blend of singing off the words and the notes.
This recording is deservedly a classic of the gramophone, a great performance which displays roots that reach directly back to the composer himself. However, if you can listen through bad sound quality, I'd urge you to listen to Ferrier's performance with Barbirolli as well.
The three Ruckert Lieder also included on this disc are also wonderfully done - especially Ich bin der Welt anhanden gekommen. Um Mitternacht, too, is mightily imposing. Only Janet Baker (again with Barbirolli) runs them close.