This well-balanced, finely integrated performance manages to be scrupulous and refined yet flowing and dramatic -- though the drama here is less overt than in some performances, achieved as much through subtle but telling gestures made in an atmosphere of unflagging concentration and tension as through theatricality and dynamic intensity. Kubelik is keenly attuned to the intricately woven nature of the work, and his flexible but faithful conducting is well suited to the task. His ability to logically relate and gracefully transition between even the most disparate of elements allows him to maintain tension and momentum throughout and to impart a fluid-like flow to the music. This performance won't sweep you away, but it moves along with great sureness of purpose and contributes in no small way to the performance's genuinely satisfying sense of continuity and integrity.
The admirably refined and responsive playing of the Bavarian RSO also contributes to this sense, allowing Kubelik to balance musical lines as he pleases without having to analytically highlight delicate lines so that they can be heard above the din of a scrappy orchestra. Their near-faultless playing and chamber-like coordination is all the more remarkable for being accomplished in a live setting and without the slightest hint of cautious holding-back so as not to make a mistake. Indeed, there's an extra measure of involvement and a palpable sense of occasion throughout this performance, with everyone sounding completely sold on Kubelik's interpretation and wholeheartedly determined to put it across to the audience.
Waldemar Kmentt sings with much character and conviction (though not so much as Julius Patzak in the famous Ferrier/Patzak/Walter/VPO recording for Decca), but Kmentt's voice may not be to everyone's liking: it has a slightly airless, cardboard-y tone that doesn't quite fully bloom. For me, the quality of his singing more than compensates for the quality of his voice, but I can well imagine those listeners weaned on, say, Fritz Wunderlich (from the famous Ludwig/Wunderlich/Klemperer/Philharmonia recording for EMI) having a hard time coming to terms with Kmentt's less-than-golden tone.
Janet Baker is in excellent voice and sings better and more purely, I think, than she does for Leppard [BBC Classics] or for Haitink [Philips] in this work. She seems more at home and more involved in Kubelik's interpretation, and she is better integrated into the overall scheme of things. Her interpretation is less overtly emotional than that of Ferrier and some others, and her voice is lighter than I personally prefer in these songs, but I haven't heard anyone sing them more consummately or just plain beautifully.
Though I'm temperamentally more aligned with and still favor the dramatic sweep and emotional trenchancy of Ferrier/Patzak/Walter/VPO [Decca] and the dark, brooding intensity and angst of Hodgson/Mitchinson/Horenstein/BBC Northern SO [BBC Legends] in this work, I'd have to say that it is Kubelik who has produced the most balanced and, Waldemar Kmentt's voice aside, the most sheerly beautiful performance I've heard.
The recorded sound is clean and focused and well balanced, lacking only the last ounce or two of "oomph" in the bottom end of the frequency spectrum. The audience is very quiet.