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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (original piano versions)
Der Schildwache Nachtlied [6:13]
Revelge* [7:08]
Rheinlegendchen [3:26]
Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? [2:10]
Verlorne Müh’! [7:11]
Trost im Unglück [2:21]
Lob des hohen Verstands [2:59]
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [4:14]
Lied des Verfolgten im Turn [4:26]
Der Tambourg’sell [6:31]
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen [8:13]
Das irdische Leben [2:51]
Das himmlische Leben* [8:25]
Urlicht* [5:19]
“Es sungen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang”* [4:22]
Thomas Hampson (baritone); Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
rec. Teldec Studio, Berlin, November 1991, June 1993.DDD
*World première recording
WARNER CLASSICS 9031 74726-2 [73:06]



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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 the differences.

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 delight.

It’s inevitable, 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.

Hampson conveys 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.

The desperation 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.

‘Der Tambourg’sell’ 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!

John Quinn 


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