Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
Rheinlegendchen [3:19]
Verlorne Müh’! [3:05]
Trost im Unglück [2:24]
Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? [2:10]
Lob des hohen Verstands [2:47]
Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [4:13]
Revelge [6:26]
Der Tambourg’sell [6:56]
Der Schildwache Nachtlied [6:19]
Lied des Verfolgten im Turn [4:14]
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen [7:50]
Das irdische Leben [3:05]
Das himmlische Leben [8:21]
Urlicht [5:55]
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Wiener Virtuosen/Ernst Ottensamer
rec. March, July 2010, Franz Liszt-Zentrum, Raiding, Austria.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9289 [66:57]

It’s fair to say that in lieder terms Thomas Hampson is to Mahler what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was to Schubert - and was, in his time, to Mahler as well. Hampson owns Mahler’s songs, with numerous recordings and performances, dating back to those with Leonard Bernstein. Hampson has recorded the Knaben Wunderhorn songs a number of times, including one disc of original piano versions, with Geoffrey Parsons, and a DVD of a live performance of the songs, recorded in 2002. Hampson seems to want constantly to revisit this wonderful collection of songs - not a song-cycle as such, but rather a group of poems that Mahler set to music over a period of ten years - exploring the many possibilities they offer.

In this version, after recording discs with orchestral and piano accompaniment, Hampson chooses a chamber orchestra, consisting of a “core group” of a dozen musicians made up of principals from the Vienna Philharmonic; though at times there are more musicians than that. The tone this provides is lighter than a full orchestra, yet still packs the oomph necessary for songs such as Revelge, which call for a powerful presence among the instruments. For other songs, they can provide a subtler sound, as in Der Tambourg’sell, where the orchestral voices come through like individual brush-strokes in a larger canvas. Strings sound solitary, the oboe sounds lonely and heartbroken, and the horns’ plaintive calls resound against a desolate landscape.

Hampson, in a video available on YouTube, presents this project, pointing out that Mahler often spoke of a chamber orchestra accompanying these songs, to have a tighter “dialog” between the instruments and the singer. The orchestra achieves that type of integration with the voice, and the excellent recording maintains an ideal balance and spaciousness.

To say that Hampson’s performance on this disc is nearly flawless would, in part, betray my subjective appreciation for his interpretation of Mahler songs. It’s hard to imagine any baritone today with the same amount of experience of performing this music, but also deep knowledge of these songs. Hampson is both a scholar and a singer, and while his academic approach may, at times, keep him at arm’s length from the deeper feelings of the music, this is not the case with these songs. You can hear how he gives his all in every song, and how well he makes each song a miniature tone poem together with the chamber orchestra.

On its own merits, this is an astounding recording of the Knaben Wunderhorn songs. There is also the personal aspect of how much a listener appreciates a given voice. I have always liked Hampson, so this new recording is, to me, nearly perfect. Others who don’t like his voice should still listen to his unique approach on this disc. There is no shortage of fine recordings of these works, including Fischer-Dieskau’s excellent CD with Daniel Barenboim (piano), or the wonderful orchestral recording by Anne-Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff, with Claudio Abbado conducting. That said, Hampson’s new recording offers a unique approach.

Kirk McElhearn

One of the finest recordings of these Mahler songs by today’s leading interpreter of these works.