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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Wunderhorn
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
Bochumer Symphoniker/Steven Sloane
rec. 2017, Anneliese Brost Musikforum Ruhr, Germany
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
AVANTICLASSIC AVA10522 [2 CDs: 144]

To my surprise, I discovered that not only is this Dietrich Henschel’s third recording of the Wunderhorn songs but it is Steven Sloane’s second – and not only that but his second with the same orchestra – the less well know Bochomer Symphoniker. There is great value in having performers who know music through and through and the results on this new 2 CD set certainly reflect that, even though those performers are not particularly well known. The motivation for this recording is that it forms the soundtrack to a film based on the songs.

Henschel’s voice is as velvet smooth as a pint of Guinness and is extremely well caught by the Avanticlassic engineers. It is not always the case in these songs that the male voice is so beautiful in tone. Most recordings go for character over beauty of tone. I think of Shirley Quirke with Haitink and, brilliant though his dramatisation of his contributions are, it is seldom a lovely noise. Henschel is as imaginative and dramatic as anyone could wish for but he marries that with lashings of chocolatey tone to boot.

The set is fleshed out with every song Mahler wrote to a Wunderhorn text, the collection of folk poetry that provided so much stimulation for his early work. Henschel even gives us a solo version of the Bim Bam chorus of angels from the Symphony No.3!

Another distinctive feature of the recording is that Henschel sings all the parts even those that tend to go to female singers. This makes great demands on Henschel’s range and he more than rises to the challenge. The recording opens with perhaps the most controversial example – the finale of Fourth symphony. Bernstein famously used a boy soprano but a riper than ripe baritone voice takes some getting used to! This performance made me think that we have a tendency these days to refine away some of the rough edges in this movement- something that earlier recordings by Klemperer and Bruno Walter never did. It sets the tone for what is to be a rather exuberant romp through these Wunderhorn songs.

The inclusion of movements such as this finale give weight to a collection that can sometimes seem a little bitty as well as balancing out the much later Tambourg’sell and Revelge. Incidentally, I thought putting those two songs next to each other in the programme was a rare misstep in the production of this recording. Even though thematically and atmospherically they clearly belong together, in the context of the recording as a whole they almost jar against the lighter pieces that proliferate. But this is most likely a point highly personal to me and it seems unfair to carp when the programme as a whole works so well.

The earliest songs in particular emerge glowing like new paint in the company of the later ones and fear nothing from the comparison. The highly idiomatic orchestrations of those early songs by Detlev Glanert contribute greatly to the pleasure I got from this set. What we get sounds again and again like a visit to the inside of Mahler’s head during the compositional process. Or perhaps, following the film this recording accompanies, it is more like a Werther style Bildungsroman.
 
As for the performances of those two songs, they are superb. The Gute Nacht sequence of Tambourg’sell is heartbreaking as it should be and the macabre jollies of Revelge are delivered with an appropriate sense of barely suppressed frenzy and of waking in cold sweat as dawn breaks at the song’s end.

I sometimes think that the time has come to dispense with mentioning sound quality in reviews, so routinely excellent have nearly all classical recordings become. Sometimes, however, a recording comes along which grabs my ears by going above and beyond even those standards of excellence and this is one such. It isn’t just the miking of the soloist I mentioned earlier nor just the exemplary balance between orchestra and the soloist – though both of those are true. The superb orchestral contribution is captured in the most extraordinary detail but without sacrificing warmth. For all that this is Mahler, most of the Wunderhorn songs are good humoured even when they are grotesque and even macabre – and so they are presented here.

The word that comes to mind listening to these recordings is ‘freshness’. What we hear is a young composer in his early splendour. I have never really warmed to the famous Szell recording with Schwarzkopf and Fischer Dieskau, brilliantly though it is executed. On top of feeling a little too premeditated, it lacks that youthful spring that Henschel and Sloane exude. They don’t lack elegance and restraint when needed – Wo die schönen Trompetten blasen, for example is gorgeously melancholy – but everything is done with zest and a sense of wonder. Sloane gives nothing away to the more celebrated Herreweghe in one of Henschel’s earlier versions of these songs – either in this song or any of the others. Henschel is remarkably consistent across his three tapings of them. Fittingly, though, given that this is, in effect, the soundtrack to a film, this latest is probably the most dramatic.

I recently enjoyed listening to Gabriel Feltz’ intensely stimulating complete set of the Mahler symphonies split between bands from Stuttgart and Dortmund and this Wunderhorn provides further illustration that German orchestral life is in rude health – even, perhaps especially, away from the obvious centres. For a smaller regional orchestra, these Bochum musicians do play exceptionally well and, more to the point, - crucially in these works – with abundant personality. Mahler has reached the point of such ubiquity that too many performances sound on autopilot. No chance of that with these accounts! The concluding Urlicht with Henschel making a strong case for the male voice, dangles the tantalising thought of how good these forces would be at tackling the whole of the Resurrection. Sloane is clearly a natural Mahlerian – not always something that can be taken for granted in recordings of the composer.

My favourite Wunderhorn recording is that by Wyn Morris for all its terrible sound. Comparing the two recordings, I find it something of a tradeoff. Morris is just that little bit wilder and fun, Henschel and Sloane are better recorded and better sung and played. Morris has the variety having two soloists brings even though Henschel does a superb job of varying his vocal responses. Henschel has the unbeatable bonus of all those extra songs. And so it goes. If anyone reading this has yet to hear the Morris, stop reading immediately and go and order it. It is one of the great Mahler recordings. And order this new Henschel while you are at it. Those who know the Morris need only be told that this new recording is worthy of consideration alongside it.

David McDade
 
Contents

CD1
01 Das himmlische Leben (1892)
02 Verlor’ne Müh’ (1892)
03 Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald (1907)
04 Starke Einbildungskraft (1907)
05 Aus! Aus! (1892)
06 Revelge (1899)
07 Der Tambourg’sell (1901)
08 Rheinlegendchen (1893)
09 Selbstgefühl (1900)
10 Wer hat dies Liedel erdacht? (1892)
11 Scheiden und Meiden (1889)
12 Der Schildwache Nachtlied (1892)
CD 2
01 Das irdische Leben (1892–3)
02 Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen (1899/1900)
03 Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt (1893)
04 Ablösung im Sommer (1904/5)
05 Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (1898)
06 Nicht Wiedersehen (1892)
07 Es sungen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang (1895)
08 Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz At Strassburg (1906)
09 Trost im Ungluck (1892)
10 Wo die schönen Trompetten blasen (1898)
11 Lob des hohen Verstandes (1898)
12 Urlicht (?1892, orch.1893)




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