We most often hear Mahler’s best-known songs from the most influential German folk-song anthology, Des Knaben Wunderhorn – it translates uneasily as ‘The Youth’s Magic Horn’ – shared between soprano or mezzo, baritone and orchestra. Yet not only does Wolfgang Holzmair justify voice-and-piano versions by including eight of the nine songs Mahler composed before his orchestral settings; he has a pianist in Charles Spencer as alert as himself to the rapid interchange of irony and sentiment, tragedy and comedy.
Their rapport is beautifully announced in the opening ‘Rhine Legend’, its bittersweet quality achieved with fine line and plenty of rubato. Spencer can conjure the orchestral drums and trumpets of the military numbers atRead more one extreme – hair-raising in the slaughter of ‘Reveille’ – and the muted spinning of ‘Earthly life’ at the other. Holzmair’s seemingly effortless legato connects songs as different in mood as the early heartbreak of ‘Never to meet again!’, the slithery, wry morality-tale of ‘St Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes’ and the lacerating lament of ‘The drummer boy’ – a miraculous central sequence. Nor does he fail to reflect the depths of the still waters in ‘Where the shining trumpets blow’ and ‘Primeval light’.
All I miss is the edge to soldierly sarcasms you find from two bass-baritones who’ve recorded some of the songs with orchestra, Thomas Quasthoff and John Shirley-Quirk. But this is a unique sequence, showing that most of the earliest settings which sit alongside the more familiar numbers, usually linked by theme, are just as finely-wrought and no less typical of Mahler’s most haunting preoccupations.