MAHLER Des Knaben Wunderhorn • Markus Stenz, cond; Christiane Oelze (sop); Michael Volle (bar); Cologne Gürzenich O • OEHMS OC 657 (SACD: 61:28 & no trans)
This recording of the Wunderhorn songs was made simultaneously with that of Symphony No. 4 (reviewed last issue), which not coincidentally features Christiane Oelze as soloist. The song that constitutes the symphony’s finale, “DasRead more himmlische Leben,” is also included in this program, placed last and, appropriately enough, after its earthly predecessor, “Das irdische Leben.” The two performances are so similar that one would assume them to be the same, but there are subtle differences in timing and execution that prove them to be different. It is evidence of the care invested in this project that this extra effort was expended; Stenz’s symphony cycle is thus both extended and enriched.
As in the classic set on EMI featuring Schwartzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, several of the songs here are presented as duets, a practice condemned by Donald Mitchell: “Mahler, I am sure, did not have this possibility in mind. He would have expected a capable singer to have been able to characterize each role sufficiently, without recourse to a partner.” (The Wunderhorn Years, p. 260 n. 34). Be that as it may, the device can be justified from a dramatic standpoint, and I find the added variety refreshing. The pairing is only applied to three songs—“Trost im Unglück,” “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm,” and “Verlor’ne Müh”—and each one consists of pure dialogue (the last stanza of “Trost im Unglück” is written for both protagonists) so it hardly seems far-fetched to characterize the songs through the use of two voices. The voices of these particular singers, youthful and unaffected, produce versions of the songs that should please all but the Mitchellian purist.
Volle and Stenz give “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” a somewhat slow and dark reading, which adds just the right touch of irony to this familiar piece. The two later songs, “Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg’sell,” find Volle in martial mode, his delivery falling somewhere between the declamatory and lyric, but always dramatically true. “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” sung by Oelze alone, is quite moving, her pure tone adding the appropriate touch of pathos.
Oelze offers a moving “Urlicht,” for which she manages the darker mezzo timbre very convincingly (she recorded the soprano part of the “Resurrection” Symphony with Fabio Luisi, reviewed in Fanfare 31: 5). The song is given a very close audio perspective—this is almost an intimate setting, highlighting the simple sincerity of the words and setting it apart from the lighter vein or martial theme of the preceding songs. Another notable vocal achievement occurs with “Das irdische Leben,” which is sung by Volle—if not actually unique, certainly exceptionally rare. One might have expected Oelze to take this song, thus providing the finale of a mini-drama with “Das himmlische Leben.” Volle also begins the program with a charming “Rheinlegendchen,” another song more characteristically taken by the soprano when the vocal duties are shared by two singers.
Two classics, the EMI previously alluded to and the more recent DG set featuring Thomas Quasthoff and Anne Sofie von Otter, accompanied by Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, provide stiff competition for any newcomer. I have no qualms about placing this new set in such august company. Stenz and his Cologne orchestra produce accompaniment of subtlety, humor, and power by turns, never content to simply play along. The sound production is spacious, detailed, and grounded with solid lows. I recommend this inspired set to Mahlerites and Lieder-lovers without reservation. (There is one minor blemish: The songs come with no translations.)