Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 (Totenfeier)
Rheinlegendchen (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
Ging heut' morgen übers Feld (No. 2 from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen)
Symphony No. 2 (Urlicht)
Ich atmet' einen linden Duft (Rückert-Lieder)
Revelge (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
Es sungen drei Engel (orig. in Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (Rückert-Lieder)
Trost im Unglück (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
Symphony No. 2 (Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen)
Thomas Hampson (baritone); Anne Sofie von Otter and Marita Solberg (sopranos)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. 7 July 2010, Kalište, Czech Republic
Sound format: PCM stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1; DTS 5.1
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Region code: 0
EUROARTS 2058148 [78:00]

We’ve become used to a variety of techniques in filming classical concerts, especially those with orchestras where there are a lot of things to show. But do we really need a steadicam moving around and within the orchestra, distracting the musicians? Do we need cameras on booms opposite the stage moving up and down or sideways to make the music more interesting? Do we need to cut away from the orchestra to show a landscape, as if to illustrate the “pastoral” aspects of certain musical themes? Do we need shots showing fields, trees or crosses? Or what about choppy slo-mo shots of a marching band superimposed over a reflecting pool?

I begin this review with such questions, as they are the fist things that crossed my mind seeing the opening minutes of this DVD. Recorded in the town where Mahler was born, Kalište, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, this concert takes place in a hideous structure: a covered stage with mirrors on its face separated from the audience by a pond. It seems that everything was done to make this about the filming and direction, and not about the music. With overlays of shots of the city, old pictures and more, the beginning of this film looks like part concert, part travelogue.

This film contains only part of a much broader event that occurred on this day, which notably featured a recital by Thomas Hampson in the afternoon. The DVD contains the evening concert, with excerpts from the 2nd Symphony and a half-dozen songs performed by Hampson and von Otter.

Clearly designed to be more of a TV spectacle than a concert, the singers wear head-mics allowing their voices to be recorded in the unfavourable conditions of the concert. It’s not clear whether the live audience listened via speakers; the front row is about 30 metres from the stage, across the pond. This use of mics does, at least ensure that the singers are heard well. During one section, two choirs - one of boys and one of women - sing from inside a church. Thanks to the magic of television, the orchestra is able to play along, and von Otter joins as soloist.

Thomas Hampson is one of my favourite Mahler singers, and he is in grand form, walking back and forth across the stage as he sings, looking more like he’s on Broadway than at a classical concert. As so often, he makes singing these songs look so easy, and he visibly enjoys doing so. At the beginning of Revelge, Hampson is behind the orchestra, and sings sometimes directly to the steadicam to his right, adding to the hokiness of the overall production. Von Otter is more staid when she sings, in part because her numbers are more restrained. The two of them work well together in their one duet, Trost im Unglück. Marita Solberg sings only in the finale of the 2nd Symphony, with von Otter and Hampson, a large choir, and the previously seen boys’ choir that comes out on to the front of the stage in somewhat risible-looking angelic robes. This makes for a cheesy ending to a concert that did not skimp on schmaltz throughout. It all seems to be trying to send some sort of Message that, alas, this reviewer did not receive.

Throughout all of this, the small audience is clearly underwhelmed, and their applause is polite at best, though they wake up at the very end of the concert, perhaps happy to head-off for the post-musical victuals. The whole show seems as if it was put on for some local burgermeister. If it were not for the quality of the singers, there would be no point in watching it. If you can catch it on TV, you should certainly not miss it, if you like Mahler’s music. But other than that, unless you’re a fan of the specific singers – Hampson is the best of the lot - there’s not a lot here for the money. The orchestra is competent, and it’s great music, but there are many better DVDs of Mahler music.

Kirk McElhearn

A ho-hum film of some Mahler music, with some high points when Hampson sings.