WORKS: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
PERFORMER: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Quasthoff (baritone); Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 459 646-2
Even without the enticement of two of the world’s most perceptive Lieder singers and the razor-sharp support of Abbado, there would be one very compelling reason for choosing this collection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) even above the intriguingly matched team of Norman, Shirley-Quirk and Haitink. Mahler selected texts from the polished-up folk anthology which mostly deal with the here-and-now tragicomedies of soldiers and country girls, reserving the collection’s rare moments of religious balm to light the way in the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies. By ending with ‘Urlicht’ out of the context of the Resurrection Symphony, Abbado’s sequence suggests that something lies beyond the temporary consolations of soldier-spectres and the terror of death. And this is, after all, Anne Sofie von Otter at her most hallowed, following Quasthoff in burnished tragic-heroic mode, sounding for all the world like a young Norman Bailey in the focused despair he shares so well with Abbado.
From the first, rhythmically crisp trumpet fanfares, so skilfully imitated by Berlin woodwind later on, you know you are in the most vivid of hands. Abbado is right to trust the varied tone colours of his two singers to carry the many boy-girl dialogues single-handedly in each song, as Mahler always intended (and contrary to the practice of most other contenders). Von Otter plays the wench with just a hint of Strauss’s Octavian disguised as Mariandel, and none of the archness of a Schwarzkopf, while the desperation of ‘Das irdische Leben’ is carefully graded. And Quasthoff is as quietly witty in pointing up the rhythms and phrases of the fables as he is harrowing in the military doom-songs. Unsurpassable.