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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [34:56]
Symphony No. 10 Adagio [25:02]
Michael Volle (baritone), Münchner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. live 18-21 May 2011, Philharmonie, Munich

In May 2011, Christian Thielemann and Münchner Philharmoniker gave a series of four concerts at Philharmonie, Munich. The first, on the exact centenary of Gustav Mahler’s death, presented the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10 and a selection of Wunderhorn Lieder sung by Michael Volle. Few orchestras have such an established tradition of performing Mahler as Münchner Philharmoniker. They premiered Symphony No. 4 (1901) and Symphony No. 8 (1910) as Kaim Orchestra under the composer’s own baton, and Das Lied von der Erde (1911) under Bruno Walter; the orchestra changed its name to Konzertvereinsorchester.

Mahler’s collection of orchestral songs Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) are settings of texts from the collection of German folk poetry compiled and published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. They are standalone settings of orchestral songs that can be performed in any order. Mahler published them as a set of twelve in 1899, substituting two of them in 1901. The small-scale Wunderhorn settings, each with its own distinctive sound, are fine examples of how Mahler’s compositional style can fluctuate between extremes of music from the past to his progressive leanings. Heinrich Heine held the view that “In these songs you can feel the heartbeat of the German people”.

Thielemann has selected eight of the orchestral songs. German baritone Michael Volle was his soloist, an inspired choice as a replacement for the indisposed Christian Gerhaher. One of the finest singers on the international scene today, Volle is equally at home in the concert hall at a lieder recital and in the opera house where he is currently in rehearsals as Hans Sachs (a signature role) at Bayreuth for Barrie Kosky’s production of Meistersinger. I can highly recommend Volle’s album of Wagner Scenes and Arias released in 2017 on Orfeo (review).

This is a highly consistent performance. The fluent Volle is in prime form throughout the selection, and one senses he is relishing every word of the text. My highlights include Volle’s interpretation of the buoyant setting Rheinlegendchen (Rhine Legend) with its appealing Ländler melody. He has delightful diction and convincingly simple expression as he portrays the lovelorn labourer whose gold ring sinks into the Rhine waters. Volle projects his voice beautifully through the glorious light orchestral accompaniment of the achingly moving setting Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the shining trumpets sound). He effortlessly glides though his register as he expresses the pain of a soldier’s love for his weeping sweetheart as he leaves for war, maybe never to return. With the strong martial character of the setting Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (Song of the prisoner in the tower) the baritone effortlessly adds weight and darkens to his timbre in total sympathy with the prisoner behind bars longing for freedom. My high point of the collection is Urlicht (Primal light), the memorable and highly moving setting Mahler used in his ‘ResurrectionSymphony. In this dark and reflective score, Volle imparts just the right balance of sadness and poignancy. Within the overall orchestral unity, the contributions of the individual principals and various sections is outstanding.

Many people’s benchmark recording in Des Knaben Wunderhorn is the remarkable 1968 pairing of soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Produced by Walter Legge, this classic recording was made at London’s Kingsway Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra under George Szell on EMI. Nevertheless, in his eight song selection, Volle’s performance has an elevated quality and is eminently recommendable. The baritone has integrity, and is unfussy and compelling in its effect and penetrating insight in these Mahler settings.

In the summer of 1910 Mahler was writing his Tenth Symphony against a background of personal crisis and turmoil that his young wife Alma had been having an affair. Mahler did not survive to finish the score. Although he completed the orchestration of the opening Adagio, the second movement was left in short score, with incomplete sketches for the remainder. I have been brought up hearing recordings of the performance editions of Mahler’s draft in particular the one prepared by Deryck Cooke, notably the revised version conducted by Simon Rattle with superb playing by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on EMI. But performance editions are not to every conductor’s taste. I recall conductor Pierre Boulez’s dissatisfaction with the various attempts to complete the symphony from Mahler’s sketches; he found them too rudimentary to use with any degree of success. For this live performance Thielemann has chosen to conduct only the fully orchestrated first movement Adagio.

Thielemann’s interpretation of the Adagio, which seems to stretch emotions to their limit, is both convincing and uncommonly compelling. Despite the uneasy austerity of the writing complete with such penetrating sonorities, Thielemann reveals an often stark beauty. Undoubtedly Münchner Philharmoniker are very much at home with Mahler’s sound world. They provide responsive playing with a spine-tingling intensity that builds so convincingly. The impact of Thielemann’s menacing climax at 17:22 comes like an emotional hammer blow.

The engineering team give us a reasonably warm sound with excellent clarity, presence and balance. The booklet contains two helpful essays: ‘Poetry as the sound of unspoilt nature’ by Susanne Stähr and ‘Something we are not yet supposed to know’ by Christian Wildhagen. Sung German texts are provided but, most disappointingly for a recording issued with the English market in mind, there are no English translations.

This is undoubtedly one of the finest Mahler albums that I have reviewed in some years.

Michael Cookson

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