Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn)
Heinz Rehfuss (bass-baritone),
Maureen Forrester (contralto)
Symphony Orchestra of the Vienna Festival/Felix Prohaska
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS HDTT4482 
Recent discussion concerning the relative merits of various recordings of this work on the MusicWeb Message Board prompted me to return to this vintage 1963 recording, mentioned by several people as a favourite but also as being somewhat compromised by its supposedly less-than-stellar sound. I have it on the Vanguard Classics CD issue so make comparison between that and this 24-bit, 352.8 DD digital download remastered from 4-track tape by HDTT. It immediately becomes apparent that although the original recording was fine, enjoying clarity and good stereo separation, this new incarnation is warmer, fuller, with minimal hiss - and, most importantly, the orchestra seems to have been brought forward somewhat in comparison with the solo voices – a desirable adjustment. I would not, however, say that anyone who has that older issue need rush to replace it.
This was also reviewed as part of his survey of Mahler’s Song Cycles back in the year 2000 by Tony Duggan who, like many of us, favoured above all the version by Wyn Morris with Janet Baker and Geraint Evans (eventually “Dame” and “Sir” respectively, of course, but they are young here) alongside this and the Szell – but like many people, I would endorse the latter only for its conducting, as I find neither Schwarzkopf nor Fischer-Dieskau to be vocally or interpretatively apt. This recording assigns individual songs to only one singer rather than their duetting – which I much prefer, for reasons of artistic unity.
Heinz Rehfuss might not be as celebrated or well-remembered as Evans but to my ears he has a much neater, cleaner, more beautiful voice, with an attractive quick vibrato and a round resonance to his tone – he was, for example, a virile Count Almaviva for Rosbaud and there is a fine compilation of his song recitals on Decca Eloquence. Evans is a bluffer, more robust interpreter and his strength, of course, was characterisation, but Rehfuss is an expressive performer with superb diction and need fear no comparison. It has to be said, too, that his German is more idiomatic than non-native speakers like Evans. He is perhaps rather more “refined” in manner than Evans, so I can understand why some would prefer a more rustic manner; this is more “classic” in delivery. Rehfuss is more at home, however, with the vocal leaps, turns and high tessitura in Lied des Verfolgtem im Turm; the honours are evenly split between him and Evans and preference is a matter of personal taste.
Maureen Forrester was a beloved singer of greater fame and she, too, is every bit as impressive as the finest singers of this work. While Janet Baker is evidently a mezzo-soprano, there is a treacly, sonorous depth to Forrester’s voice which marks her out as a Kathleen Ferrier type of true contralto, which lends a kind of dark, spooky hue to her songs, especially the macabre Das irdische Leben. The stateliness of her voice does not impede her sense of fun and like Rehfuss, her voice is of the “old-fashioned” style which I love – nary a flap or a wobble. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen is a central song for its pathos, variety and atmospheric, orchestral colour; it is here given a simply mesmerising performance by Prohaska and Forrester; this song proleptic of the of depth of mature Mahler. I have a special attachment, however, to the swirling rhythm and lurid, ironic narrative of Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt and while I enjoy the performance of it here, I could wish Prohaska gave it a little more spring and momentum; nonetheless, it makes its mark.
The album concludes with Urlicht, familiar from the ‘Resurrection’ symphony no. 2, sung here with sibylline grandeur by Forrester and making a suitably grave and hieratic conclusion to an essentially flawless account of this sequence of songs.
Prohaska could not sound more at home in the folksy Schwung of these songs – and he secures absolutely superb playing from an orchestra supposedly the poor cousin of its Viennese relative.
Tony Duggan designated this as a “benchmark” recording and I am very much of his opinion, especially when it is presented in such luscious, rejuvenated sound.
1 Revelge [6:25]
2 Das irdische Leben [3:05]
3 Lob des hohen Verstandes [2:27]
4 Rheinlegendchen [3:15]
5 Der Schildwache Nachtlied [5:34]
6 Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? [2:12]
7 Verlor'ne Muh [2:32]
8 Der Tamboursg'sell [5:13]
9 Trost im Ungluck [2:27]
10 Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen [5:58]
11 Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt [4:12]
12 Lied des Verfolgtem im Turm [3:55]
13 Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Urlicht [5:07]