Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

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COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
PERFORMER: Thomas Hampson (baritone); Wiener Virtuosen
CATALOGUE NO: DG 477 9289

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With Pierre Boulez’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn as our Disc of the Month in December, there’s no shortage of competition for any new performance on disc. Thomas Hampson has been canny enough to make his latest recording very much his own.

Taking his cue from Mahler’s declaration that these orchestral songs really were chamber music, Hampson has made them so not only in quality (as, arguably, the best full-orchestral performances do), but in quantity too. He refines his forces to those of the Wiener Virtuosen, with far fewer strings, and some small changes in wind and percussion too.

This has the effect of creating a wonderfully fresh imaginative take on the songs. With the droll bassoon and aquaeous clarinets of ‘St Anthony’s Fish-Sermon’ palpably present, and with quintessentially Viennese strings waltzing and winking their way through ‘Rheinlegendchen’, these slimmer forces really put a spring in the music’s step. And within this vividly childlike pop-up book of tales Hampson offer pungent characterisation. 

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His voice might not now be as sophisticated and effortlessly melismatic as some; but he’s at his most relaxed and least self-conscious here. And his choice of tempos – notably in juxtaposing a brisk ‘Revelge’, in which the sharp edge of the macabre really bites, with the dark fear of a daringly slow ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ – is often inspired. Hampson also has a creditable crack at the mezzo and soprano Wunderhorn songs from the Second and Third Symphonies, in what is a constantly absorbing recital. Hilary Finch