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Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Thomas Hampson

Release Date: 12/21/2010 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 001508502  
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Thomas Hampson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wiener Virtuosen
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAHLER Des Knaben Wunderhorn Thomas Hampson (bar); Vienna Virtuosi DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9289 (67:04 Text and Translation)

As improbable as it may seem given the number of recordings of these songs, either individually or as a complete set, there is only one other recording featuring a male voice with orchestra: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic on Sony (currently, alas, deleted). Hampson’s new disc is unique in Read more offering this version accompanied by a chamber group. The Vienna Virtuosi is a flexible chamber ensemble, in this case comprising the core group of 10 principals from the Vienna Philharmonic, assisted by others from the orchestra.

In Fanfare 34:3 I noted that Hampson hadn’t yet recorded the complete set of Wunderhorn songs with orchestra. I wasn’t aware that this disc was imminent, so its arrival is a very pleasant surprise. There are some definite gains to be found in the more intimate setting of this recording, but I have one reservation as well.

The performances are, not surprisingly, beyond reproach (this set includes the usual 12 songs plus the two from Symphonies 2 and 4). Since there is no conductor involved, one assumes that this is Hampson’s definitive statement on these songs at this time, and as such, it serves as a complement to the Teldec recording (from 1993) of the voice and piano version of this program.

I find that the sound of the reduced forces works best in the earlier, more romantic songs: “Rheinlegendenchen,” “Verlorne Müh’!,” “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?,” “Der Schildwache Nachtlied,” “Das irdische Leben,” and “Das himmlische Leben.” The four later songs—“Revelge,” “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” “Lied der Verfolgten im Turm,” and “Der Tamboursg’sell”—benefit substantially from the full symphony orchestra; when compared to the recent live San Francisco Symphony recording, the more resonant acoustic of Davies Symphony Hall also suits both Hampson’s voice and the sense of drama in these particular songs. Taken as a whole, though, this new recording is greater than the sum of its parts.

With this new recording, Hampson further strengthens his credentials as the leading interpreter of Mahler songs of either gender. In comparison to late Fischer-Dieskau as exemplified by the Sony Wunderhorn recording, Hampson’s voice is more robust and flexible, capable of the solemn tones in a high tessitura required by “Urlicht,” as well as the military bombast of “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” and the melancholy of “Der Tamboursg’sell.” While I won’t be discarding my Fischer-Dieskau Mahler records anytime soon, this new Wunderhorn set is one to treasure for years to come.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot

It’s fair to say that in lieder terms Thomas Hampson is to Mahler what Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was to Schubert - and was, in his time, to Mahler as well. Hampson owns Mahler’s songs, with numerous recordings and performances, dating back to those with Leonard Bernstein. Hampson has recorded the Knaben Wunderhorn songs a number of times, including one disc of original piano versions, with Geoffrey Parsons, and a DVD of a live performance of the songs, recorded in 2002. Hampson seems to want constantly to revisit this wonderful collection of songs - not a song-cycle as such, but rather a group of poems that Mahler set to music over a period of ten years - exploring the many possibilities they offer.

In this version, after recording discs with orchestral and piano accompaniment, Hampson chooses a chamber orchestra, consisting of a “core group” of a dozen musicians made up of principals from the Vienna Philharmonic; though at times there are more musicians than that. The tone this provides is lighter than a full orchestra, yet still packs the oomph necessary for songs such as Revelge, which call for a powerful presence among the instruments. For other songs, they can provide a subtler sound, as in Der Tambourg’sell, where the orchestral voices come through like individual brush-strokes in a larger canvas. Strings sound solitary, the oboe sounds lonely and heartbroken, and the horns’ plaintive calls resound against a desolate landscape. Hampson, in a video available on YouTube, presents this project, pointing out that Mahler often spoke of a chamber orchestra accompanying these songs, to have a tighter “dialog” between the instruments and the singer. The orchestra achieves that type of integration with the voice, and the excellent recording maintains an ideal balance and spaciousness.

To say that Hampson’s performance on this disc is nearly flawless would, in part, betray my subjective appreciation for his interpretation of Mahler songs. It’s hard to imagine any baritone today with the same amount of experience of performing this music, but also deep knowledge of these songs. Hampson is both a scholar and a singer, and while his academic approach may, at times, keep him at arm’s length from the deeper feelings of the music, this is not the case with these songs. You can hear how he gives his all in every song, and how well he makes each song a miniature tone poem together with the chamber orchestra.

On its own merits, this is an astounding recording of the Knaben Wunderhorn songs. There is also the personal aspect of how much a listener appreciates a given voice. I have always liked Hampson, so this new recording is, to me, nearly perfect. Others who don’t like his voice should still listen to his unique approach on this disc. There is no shortage of fine recordings of these works, including Fischer-Dieskau’s excellent CD with Daniel Barenboim (piano), or the wonderful orchestral recording by Anne-Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff, with Claudio Abbado conducting. That said, Hampson’s new recording offers a unique approach.

-- Kirk McElhearn, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Thomas Hampson (Baritone)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Wiener Virtuosen
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892-1898; Hamburg, Germany 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Hampson at his best October 10, 2014 By George Nofer (Lafayette Hill, PA) See All My Reviews "Very simply, this is an excellent presentation of this challenging work. I think Hampson is the best current artist for this genre, and the support he gets from the other musicians is just as good; they excel as well." Report Abuse
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