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Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn / Connolly, Henschel, Herreweghe [CD+Catalog]

Release Date: 03/08/2011 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 2901920   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Sarah ConnollyDietrich Henschel
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Champs-Élysées Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

As always with this composition, the headnote should more properly read “Songs from,” since Mahler set 24 songs altogether from the literary work known as “The Youth’s Magic Horn;” of those 24, most were included in two large collections, the first composed between 1887 and 1890, the second between 1892 and 1898. The last 15 were composed for voices and orchestra, of which 14 are included in this recording. Since this work isn’t in any sense a song cycle, song selection is rightly the province of the performers. Each evaluation of a recording, then, reflects one’s own personal preference regarding song selection and order of performance, as well as judgments concerning the performances themselves. The selection under review includes several Read more of the songs chosen for incorporation into the “Wunderhorn” symphonies, providing a different context for those used to hearing them only in the symphonies.

For many listeners, the benchmark for Wunderhorn recordings is still the EMI disc featuring the late Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, under the direction of George Szell. That recording featured the two eminent Lieder singers in duets, adding an extra dimension and drama to those songs. Henschel and Connolly sing solo. The unique aspect of this new recording is the use of period instrumentation, a phenomenon relatively new to Mahler performance, but gaining credibility with the new series of symphony recordings conducted by Sir Roger Norrington.

Comparison between the Dietrichs in this program is unavoidable, and the voices are remarkably similar, Henschel projecting the same sort of ghastly swagger as the narrator in “Revelge;” Thomas Quasthoff (Abbado, DG) has a lighter baritone, and is no less effective for that. The dark-hued Henschel adds a sinister quality to the sinuousness of “Des Antonius,” while the clarity of the sound and especially of the period instruments adds to the same-yet-different sensation of listening to this song in this setting. It is Henschel who is assigned “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” and here the martial quality is softened by the promise of eternal love communicated by the soldier-lover. Likewise, it is the baritone who narrates the absurd contest between cuckoo and nightingale in “Lob des hohen Verstands,” reveling in the “hee-haws” of the “judge.” Quasthoff is effective, but doesn’t have as much fun as Henschel. “Der Tamboursg’sell” provides a glimpse of the sea change in Mahler’s symphonic writing, yet it clearly has at least one foot in the earlier style. Henschel’s dark timbre is entirely effective here, as the song provides the inevitable bookend to “Revelge.” In “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” he manages to invest the verses sung by the maiden with appropriate lightness, though this is a song (along with “Der Schildwache Nachtlied”) that benefits from a duet. It always strikes me how “Der Schildwache” is a (slightly) happier cousin to the preceding song; Henschel is once again effective at producing two contrasting but interlocking narratives. Overall, I rate Henschel’s half of the program a splendid success, reminiscent of Fischer-Dieskau in his prime, and a match for the formidable Quasthoff.

Sarah Connolly’s mezzo has a dark, operatic quality that complements Henschel perfectly; her performances transport the songs off the printed page and into the theater. A demonstration of this is the contrasted characterizations of her first two songs. For “Verlor’ne Müh,” the coquettish quality of the young girl’s attempts to interest her indifferent interlocutor is irresistible; for “Das irdische Leben,” the pathetic entreaties of the starving child are just as convincingly communicated (and are themselves contrasts to the ecstatic catalog of heavenly delights in “Das himmlische Leben”). The lovers’ sparring in “Trost im Unglück” is just as sharp as that of the youngsters in “Verlor’ne Müh,” while the simple longing of “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?” sounds deceptively joyful. The nursery rhyme quality of the narrative in “Rheinlegendchen” is perhaps the least complicated of the songs for soprano, and yet Connolly makes the most of its simple charm. Her last song, and the finale to the program, is more commonly known as the fourth movement of the “Resurrection” symphony. It’s still rare enough to find “Urlicht” in this context that one expects the horrible clamor of the symphony’s finale to erupt almost immediately; as it is, this is a beautifully meditative end to an outstanding program.

Herreweghe is a most versatile conductor: he is equally at home—and equally effective—in large choral works by Bach, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, and now in compositions by Bruckner and Mahler. Indeed, I hope there is more of the latter to come—may one suggest the Second Symphony, with Connolly reprising her role? Herreweghe’s tempos in this work are perfectly matched to singer and song theme, and his direction is discreet and sensitive. His orchestra plays with such precision and style that one is rarely if ever aware of its “authentic” nature. The sound is crisp, deep, and atmospheric. In other words, this is Want List material.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot, reviewing the original release
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Works on This Recording

Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler
Performer:  Sarah Connolly (Soprano), Dietrich Henschel (Baritone)
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Champs-Élysées Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892-1898; Hamburg, Germany 

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