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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Thomas Hampson, baritone, Wolfram Reiger, piano
Rodney Greenberg, director
Théâtre Musical de Paris, Châtelet, 25 October 2002
DVD-9 Region: All

Word of this recording spread as soon as the concert ended: it has almost legendary status. But this is more than just an excellent performance by two of the most outstanding performers of their generation. Hampson's love for Mahler's music makes his interpretations of the composer in many ways definitive. When the International Gustav Mahler Institute in Vienna, researched Mahler's original scores and manuscripts to produce accurate critical editions, Hampson offered personal, financial and artistic support for the Wunderhorn songs project under Dr Renate Hilmer-Voit. This recording represents a "state of the art" insight into modern Mahler interpretation, by an artist in his prime. His enthusiasm shines through, suffusing the performance. It is also illuminating as a document on how performers work together Hampson and Reiger talk about as well as demonstrate the dialogue that turns voice and piano into song. "Song is a metaphor for the giving of the soul", says Hampson, and the Wunderhorn poems helped Mahler express ideas dear to his heart.

Hampson goes straight to the heart of the Wunderhorn ethos. The poems were collected from oral folk sources by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. They were published in 1806/8. Their almost revolutionary impact is hard to appreciate today. They helped transform European sensibility from the classical to the Romantic. These were songs of ordinary people, not church and state. They express a feisty, almost subversive, individualism. They explore psychological issues and magic, long before the concept of the subconscious was formulated. It was as if a deep river of human experience was given release, transforming the mental landscape of European thought. What we take for granted today as "modern" in many ways stems from the Wunderhorn spirit with its irreverent independence and psychological depth. As Hampson says "we must never question the beauty, value and indigenous right of human beings to think and to hold their own beliefs". "Song literature", he says "would be infinitely less rich without these songs, which have so many musical possibilities." Wunderhorn helped Mahler take song beyond Schubert and Schumann and right into the modern world.

Mahler's songs were published in different collections, and also incorporated songs into his symphonies. The only real "cycle" is Kindertotenlieder. Thus Hampson covers all these aspects of Wunderhorn material in Mahler's work, grouping his recital into themes. The first part refers to "Fables and Parables of Nature and Man". The poems make mordant comment on human nature, disguised as the actions of birds and animals. Lob des hohen Verstanden has a competition between a cuckoo (who keeps time but isn't inventive) and a nightingale (whose song is complex though elusive). A donkey decides on a whim who'll win. Hampson spits out the donkey's hee-haw with bitter irony. Again the wilfulness of nature (and other people) comes through in Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt. The saint preaches to some fish, who make a show of listening, but immediately go back to their own ways. Mahler's notes indicate "with humour" on the piano part but satire was not lost on him. "This piece is really as if nature were pulling faces and sticking its tongue out at you.", he told a friend, "But it contains such a spine-chilling panic-like humour that one is overcome more by dismay than laughter".

War, loss and death are recurring themes in the Wunderhorn ethic. Hampson calls some of these "negative love songs" for they are neither optimistic nor sentimental. Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz, with its march rhythm just slightly off-beat, resolves in the evocation of trumpets and drums, the tragedy understated. Hampson and Reiger immediately launch into Revelge, that most nightmarish of songs, where a lad's serenade to his love is a parade of skeletons, marching in formation in the dead of night. Reiger's playing is manic, horrific, the moments of glorious melody sounding even more grotesque in context. Hampson spits out the words, like a protest at the barbarism of war and its toll on human life. "Tra la lee. Tra la ree" is no lullaby here, but a mocking protest. Fischer-Dieskau didn't do it like this: in comparison he sounds almost too accepting. Reiger's staccato playing is almost like a volley of machine-gun fire. As Hampson notes, the music evokes a mad "Drang", of Stravinsky-like fervour, the Grim Reaper gone mad. With our modern ears, it's like a forewarning of the slaughter of the trenches. Der Tambourg'sell, which follows, seems all the more tragic in its surrender to death.

The last part of the recital is sub-titled "Transcendence of Life". Hampson's vivid description of Lied des Verfolgten im Turm is brilliant. He refers to the picture by Moritz von Schwind, showing a huntsman imprisoned in a tower. Meanwhile a row of elves are busily trying to saw down the bars on the window to help him escape. "Gedanken sind Frei" is the dominant phrase in this song, thoughts are free, ideas and imagination empower us to break out from circumstances. A revolutionary concept, even now. The "female" voice urges conformity to enable survival. The "male" voice, perhaps the voice of the artist, seeks triumph in the purity of ideas. There is another dialogue in Wo der schönen Trompeten blasen, a mysterious equivocal encounter between the living and the dead. Hampson and Reiger also pair Das irdische Leben and Das himmlische Leben earthly and heavenly life. For Hampson, the mother and starving child are both victims of the brutal process of life that chews people up, not so different from the soldiers mown down like wheat in the battlefield. Reiger's playing creates a powerful image of the threshing machine, the relentless grinding of machinery. Yet we know that at the end, the child will be dead, all that processing without result. In Heaven, there's food aplenty, so even though the children there are dead, they have found happiness. The piano version of the last movement in the Fourth Symphony is quite different from the orchestral version. Colours change, emphases change, singer and pianist have to find a balance completely their own, and this version works well. Urlicht, again, is familiar in its symphonic, female voice context. Here, Reiger's playing is so beautiful, one hardly misses the extra instruments. Hampson's singing is flawless, soaring and soothing at the same time.

As a visual experience, this DVD is excellent. The filming is sensitive, picking up musically relevant details, like Reiger's fingers lifting off the keys and crashing down again at critical points in Revelge, and then again, differently, in Das himmlische Leben. Understandably there is much emphasis on Hampson's facial expressions. Because he is an opera singer facial drama comes naturally to him, though it is perhaps a little de trop for Lieder fundamentalists. But I don't care, when singing is as beautiful as this. Le Châtelet is a gorgeous venue, and the filming captures its atmosphere, and audience. Altogether, an unmissable, enriching experience.

Anne Ozorio

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