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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Songs from ”Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (1892-1898)
(Version for chamber orchestra with tenor horns by Klaus Simon)
HBK Chamber Orchestra/Graziella Contratto
rec. 2018, Radiostudio Zürich Brunnenhof, Switzerland
German song texts with English translations enclosed
CLAVES 50-1921 [58:59]

“Fish that speak and donkeys as judges; deserters, phantom drummers, cheeky angels – but also wild, flirty country girls and macho guardsmen, even the Lord God himself. The Wunderhorn songs of Gustav Mahler are populated by a highly original, heterogeneous set of characters.” Thus begins Graziella Contratto, the conductor of this issue, her liner notes. And this is the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The boy’s magic horn”) with old German folk nature poetry, collected and adapted by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano at the beginning of the 19th century – almost 90 years before Mahler set to work on his collection of orchestral songs, which took him almost ten years to complete. It’s a bizarre world, filled with humour but also deeply tragic stories and the concluding song, Urlicht, about the human soul wanting to come to God: Ich bin von Gott, und will wieder zu Gott (I am from God and want to return to God). The song also constitutes the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, known as the Resurrection Symphony, which he composed between 1888 and 1894.

The present disc with 14 Wunderhorn songs is a production from HKB, Hochschule der Künste Bern (Bern University of the Arts) in Switzerland, and all the participants – singers and musicians – are students at the HKB. They don’t have a full-size symphony orchestra so Klaus Simon arranged a reduced version of the Wunderhorn score for chamber orchestra, to which he has added accordion and piano. There was also a request from the University that he replace the horns with tenor horns, to allow two students from the euphonium class to participate. Bearing in mind that Mahler himself had a predilection for the sound world of the flugelhorn and the post horn and that he in his seventh symphony wrote a solo for euphonium, there is some justification for this intervention.

Naturally when HKB ventured into this recording project they were fully aware of the daunting competition they were up against from professional world-class orchestras and ditto soloists. But Graziella Contratto sees a parallel in Mahler’s own choices of soloists for the first performances of the songs and finds for instance that Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen and Das irdische Leben were premiered in Vienna in 1900 by soprano Selma Kurz, who was 26 at the time “which in fact corresponds to the average age of the singers on the present recording.” It would be idle to pretend that the interpretations on this disc can challenge already existing recordings, but there is a youthful freshness that is disarming and in a way sheds new light on some of the songs. It may be unfair to name one particular soloist before the rest, but Selina Batliner, who is allotted three songs and also is photographed in action during a concert on 11 April 2018, stands out for exceptional beauty of tone and mature interpretations. But there are several others that are utterly promising and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years’ time some of them will make headlines. What also makes this disc unique is Klaus Simon’s arrangements, which make some of the songs lighter in tone, more transparent. I derived a lot of pleasure from the whole programme and am impressed with the commitment of all involved.

Göran Forsling

Contents & performers
1. I. Revelge [6:23]
2. II. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen [7:01]
3. III. Lied des Verfolgten im Turm [4:18]
4. IV. Verlorne Müh‘ [2:48]
5. V. Trost im Unglück [2:31]
6. VI. Wer hat dies Liedel erdacht [2:03]
7. VII. Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [3:51]
8. VIII. Es sungen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang [4:05]
9. IX. Lob des hohen Verstandes [2:38]
10. X. Rheinlegendchen [2:59]
11. XI. Der Schildwache Nachtlied [6:11]
12. XII. Das irdische Leben [2:57]
13. XIII. Der Tamboursg’sell [6:23]
14. XIV. Urlicht [4:49]
Yi-An Chen (1), Selina Batliner (2, 10, 14), Yanqiao Shi (3, 11), Julia Frischknecht (4), Simon Langenegger (5, 9), Nicole Wacker (6, 8), Arion Rudari (7, 13), Flurina Ruoss (12)

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