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Recordings

Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
16 Apr 2007

MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

The orchestral songs of Gustav Mahler remain an important contribution to the genre, and stand well alongside similar works by Berlioz, Wolf, and Strauss.

Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Sarah Connelly, mezzo soprano, Dietrich Henschel, baritone, Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Philippe Herreweghe (cond.)

Harmonia Mundi HMC901920 [CD]

$18.99  Click to buy

In addition to the song cycles entitled Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, and the symphony-song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler’s settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn remain a central part of his musical legacy, since the are connected directly to the composer's symphonies. As some of Mahler's best-known music, the songs are not only familiar, but also convey their meaning directly to the listen. More importantly, some recordings, like this one, capture the spirit of the music. The fine attention to detail, including orchestration, tempo, and balance, earmark the approach that Philippe Herreweghe took in these performances of the selection of Mahler’s settings from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

The Wunderhorn settings encompass about half of Mahler’s Lieder, with the ones he composed in the 1880s for voice and piano. Yet with the Wunderhorn songs that he composed in the 1890s, Mahler not only used piano accompaniment, but also scored the songs for voice and orchestra. Of the orchestral Wunderhorn-Lieder includes twelve settings, and Mahler composed two later songs from the same anthology several years later, “Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg’sell.” Several of the songs are also found in his symphonies, including “Urlicht” from the Second and “Es sungen drei Engel” from the Third, and in recent years “Das himmlische Leben” from the Fourth Symphony has been performed along with others songs, instead of in the symphonic context Mahler created for it.

For this recording, Herreweghe chose fourteen settings, which comprise a fine representation of this part of Mahler’s oeuvre. The singers involved are the mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly and the baritone Dietrich Henschel, who divide the pieces almost evenly between them. Since Mahler created settings for vocal ranges, such as high or low voices, rather than designating vocal types, it is not possible to distinguish between songs for male or female voice. Some of the songs lend themselves to this, while others have associations with a gender as a result of the existing performing tradition. Thus, it is customary to hear a female voice sing “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” but not necessarily the only way to do so. In Herreweghe’s recording, Henschel performs this song, one that some male singers do not attempt. Yet with “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?!”, a song with similar melismatic passages, women often perform it, as Connolly does in this recording.

Elsewhere, the texts of some of the songs are constructed as dialogues between lovers that some conductors have divided between two singers. In a respected – some would say classic – recording of these songs by George Szell (conducting the London Symphony Orchestra), a dialogue song, like “Lied der Verfolgten im Turm” is shared by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with each singer alternating by gender. There is no indication in Mahler’s scores for a second singer, and Herreweghe does not use this practice on this recording. (Henschel was given “Lied der Verfolgten im Turm.”) The literal application of “him” and “her” (“er” and “sie,” as sometimes rendered in the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn) to specific voices is not necessary, and talented singers, like those involved with this recording, can use their voices to convey the meaning of the text.

Beyond these considerations, one of the remarkable features of this recording is the effective performance and recording of the accompaniments. While a number of fine performances are available on CD, this particular one stands out for the nuances that emerge readily and consistently in this set. The motum perpetuum figuration at the beginning of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” is subtle, as it helps to set up the various other figures that occur later in the song, including the sometimes dry timpani strokes that are entirely appropriate to the piece. Likewise, the brass execute their parts without overpowering the singer or overbalancing the vocal line. A similar balance in the brass occurs in “Trost in Unglück,” where those instruments must support the voice without covering it. Yet the prominent brass at the conclusion of “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” are appropriate, especially when the suggestion of the “Bruder Martin” theme used in the penultimate movement of the First Symphony emerges clearly. In all of this, the fine ensemble that characterizes some of Herreweghe’s approach to other composers serves Mahler’s music well. The fresh and full sound that emerges in each of the songs is a welcome addition to the discography. While individuals may have recordings they prefer for the singers involved, this is one of those instances where the accompaniment serves the orchestral Lieder in ways that other recordings sometimes fall short.

Yet the voices are not without interest, as Connolly and Henschel offer their interpretations of these familiar pieces. To hear “Das himmlische Leben” outside the Fourth Symphony is a bit jarring for those who know the latter work. Only recently has this song been included with the works that Mahler designated as Wunderhorn Lieder, and such presentation suggests the other context of the song, the set of Humoresken in which Mahler at one time included the song soon it. While it properly belongs to the work in which the composer left it, his Fourth Symphony, since its presentation there is the culmination of various thematic links serve to introduce the song in the three movements that precede it. When performed with other orchestral songs, the listener does not have the benefit of such thematic links, and so it must stand on its own merits. Nevertheless, Herreweghe’s tempos are convincing, and most of all, the sometimes full accompaniment is never strident or out of place. At the same time Connolly demonstrates a sensitive approach to a song that resists being oversung, that is, overly interpreted. She is effective in allowing the vocal line to emerge without affectation, and the result is quite satisfying.

Henschel also offers some fine performances. He has taken on some of Mahler’s longer Wunderhorn Lieder, like “Der Tamboursg’sell” and “Revelge,” and as demanding as those pieces are, he demonstrates a fine sense of Mahler’s style in some of the shorter songs, like “Lob des hohen Verstandes.” In the latter, he works well with Herreweghe in conveying the sense of irony that makes the song memorable.

Overall, though, it is not one voice over another that comes across as meriting attention, nor should it be that way. The orchestra emerges as a critical element of this recording, since the ensemble and its interactions create some vibrant performances of these songs. At its head, though, is Herreweghe, who brings a fine sense of style and musicianship to Mahler’s orchestral Lieder. It is a recording that stands well besides some of the familiar and respected ones in the discography of Mahler’s music.

James Zychowicz

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