This disc continues
Thomas Hampson’s exploration of settings of poems from the
nineteenth-century collection of German folk poetry, Des
Knaben Wunderhorn. The companion disc, recorded a few
years earlier, contained several songs by Mahler but also
included offerings from eight other composers (see review).
Here, Mahler alone is the centre of attention.
Depending on your
point of view this CD may fascinate or frustrate you. The
songs are very familiar to us in Mahler’s own characteristically
colourful and resourceful orchestrations. Here, they appear
in their original versions for voice and piano. To be sure,
Geoffrey Parson’s piano playing is superb but even he can’t
conjure up the tonal resources and contrasts of a full symphony
orchestra. So, some listeners may be disappointed.
However, I hope
that most will share my fascination with this disc. What we
lose by being deprived of the full tonal palette of the orchestra
is, I think, more than compensated for by the greater sense
of intimacy that one finds when just two performers are involved.
And, in this performance at least, there’s a very real sense
of chemistry, of two musicians moving as one.
This issue is
an important one for Mahler enthusiasts. You’ll note that
several of these are claimed as first recordings. How can
this be since these songs are often performed in solo recitals?
Well, in their interesting and very well written liner-note
Renate Hilmar-Voit and Thomas Hampson point out that Mahler’s
publishers brought out editions of the orchestrated songs
in versions that amended his original piano parts to fit better
as reductions of the full scores. Apparently, it is these
amended versions that have become widely used by performers
over the years but here Hampson and Parsons have reverted
to the originals. I suspect that one would have to follow
with a score, indeed, with both versions, to be able to appreciate
For the more general
listener the quality of the performances themselves will be
the main consideration and about these there need be no equivocation.
Hampson here justifies fully his reputation as one of the
leading baritones of our day. His voice is a wonderfully flexible
instrument, heard in prime condition. Time and again I marvelled
at the length of the line he spins, at the dynamic and tonal
range that are at his command, seemingly without effort, and
at the wondrously even production of the voice throughout
its compass. There are several occasions on this disc where
Mahler takes his singer up into a taxingly high tessitura.
For Hampson such excursions to the heights seem to pose no
difficulties at all; his use of head voice is a consistent
I suppose, that one mentions the singer first but this recital
provides a vivid reminder of the artistry of the late Geoffrey
Parsons. His piano playing is splendidly characterful throughout
and one feels that at all times he is ‘with’ his singer. These
performances reveal a genuine and instinctive musical partnership
at work and I’m sure Thomas Hampson would be the first to
acknowledge that his pianist’s prowess is a vital factor in
the success of the recital.
splendidly the wide range of emotions contained in these songs.
The very first one, ’Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ alternates
strong masculinity in the odd numbered stanzas and a gentler
atmosphere in the even numbered ones. Hampson is equally successful
with both. In terms of technical issues, I much admired his
lovely light, high notes in the gentler stanzas. Just as noteworthy
are the superb, sustained ringing notes at the end of the
penultimate verse and my ear was caught particularly by the
marvellously controlled diminuendo on the word “Rund!”
towards the end of that particular stanza.
and menace in ‘Revelge’ is very well conveyed. Here Hampson
reveals the vocal power at his disposal but there’s never
the slightest suspicion of forcing the tone. Then the gentle
innocence of ‘Rheinlegendchen’ offers a welcome and rather
necessary contrast after the two dark songs that have preceded
it. In ‘Trost im Unglück’ Hampson is splendid as the dashing
hussar but he lightens his voice very appropriately for the
lines where he’s required to assume the persona of the maiden.
is one of Mahler’s most dramatic songs. Hampson is riveting
in his harrowing depiction of the drummer boy heading for
execution. He and Parsons make the second half of the song
outstandingly atmospheric. This is followed by ‘Wo die schönen
Trompeten blasen’ in which he once again displays the ease
of his upper register. As so often on this disc he colours
the text vividly and he evidences marvellous control of line.
Of especial note, I thought, was the way he sings the high-lying
words “O Lieb auf grüner Erden” at the end of the penultimate
strophe. His reading of this song is a highlight of the recital.
Four of the songs
are intimately linked with Mahler’s symphonies and here one
might be expected to miss the orchestra most of all. It’s
perhaps less of an issue in the case of ‘Des Antonius von
Padua Fischpredigt’ for although this song is the thematic
foundation of the third movement of the Second Symphony there’s
much more to the movement than just the song. However, the
other three songs actually constitute entire movements from
symphonies. ‘Urlicht’ is the fourth movement of the Second
symphony. It’s quite a shock to hear it not accompanied by
orchestra but, after Hampson has intoned the opening phrase,
Geoffrey Parsons’ playing of the chorale is touching and dignified.
One can readily accept the song out of its symphonic context
when it’s sung and played in such an elevated fashion.
I thought more
of a leap of faith would be required in the case of the other
two “symphonic” songs. ’Das himmlische Leben’ is, of course,
the finale of the Fourth symphony. It’s strange to hear it
shorn of its orchestral dress – I miss most of all the cor
anglais and the gently tolling harp. That said, Parsons provides
a fluent and imaginative accompaniment, especially in the
final stanza. As for the vocal line, well it’s decidedly odd
not to hear this sung by a soprano. However Hampson lightens
his voice most intelligently. I’ll never prefer this to the
familiar symphonic version but while listening to this disc
I was all but won over. I also enjoyed the performance of
“Es sungen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang”, otherwise familiar
as the fifth movement of the Third Symphony. One misses the
innocence of the children’s choir especially but such is the
artistry of the present performers that their version is wholly
convincing in its own way.
This is a marvellous
recital and one’s pleasure in the disc is enhanced by very
good sound. The documentation is excellent. As I’ve said,
the notes are very good indeed. These and the texts are supplied
in English, French and German.
I’ve heard some
very fine recital discs from Thomas Hampson in the past but
this is one of the finest of all. An outstanding achievement!