Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn – 12 Lieder; Symphony No. 10 – Adagio

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COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Des Knaben Wunderhorn – 12 Lieder; Symphony No. 10 – Adagio
PERFORMER: Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano), Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: DG 477 9060

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Pierre Boulez completes his 15-year Mahler cycle for DG with the Adagio from the unfinished (and Boulez believes it should stay that way) Tenth Symphony. For him it’s ‘a summation of all Mahler had ever written’ – and that’s certainly how it sounds in a luxury-class performance and recording which should go straight to the top of any Christmas list.

Boulez approaches Mahler with the keen-eared rigour – and the passion – of one who became acquainted with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern before Mahler himself. The musical future is thrillingly present in this searing live performance. And seldom has both the ecstasy and the agony of mortal man reaching out to transcendence been so powerfully recreated.

As for the 12 songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the sheer fullness of the close-recorded orchestra will take your breath away, from the resonance of the first timpani beats at the start of ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ to the last numb reverberation of the valedictory ‘Der Tambourg’sell’. And the singing of Christian Gerhaher and Magdalena Koená is equally impressive.

Gerhaher’s rhythmically rigorous baritone can shift from snarl to sentiment in a trice. It’s his range of minutely controlled tones of voice, from the dark, laconic comedy of St Antony’s sermon to the fishes, to the suppressed anger of the drummer-boy that makes this such compelling listening. His ‘Revelge’ is thrillingly tense and taut, and throughout these songs, Gerhaher and Boulez together explore and recreate that quintessentially Mahlerian borderland between hard reality and the fragile warmth of nostalgia.

The lithe, toned muscle of both orchestra and voice, everywhere meticulously balanced, maximises each expressive nuance of ‘Trost im Unglück’. And in the ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’, accompanied by bluff bow strokes and melancholy woodwind, Gerhaher’s baritone incarnates both the defiant prisoner of love and the tender, dreaming maiden.

Koená’s distinctive mezzo carries within it an authentically Central European tint of folk inflection for her earthy ‘Verlorne Müh’ – reminding us that Mahler’s birthplace was, indeed, in what is now Bohemia. And just listen to how the Cleveland Orchestra’s flute matches the timbre of her mezzo in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’.

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Boulez provides a chill gust of woodwind to whistle round the anguished questioning of her ‘Das irdische Leben’, and a delectable languor for her ‘Rheinlegendchen’. Every melisma is exquisitely shaped in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdach?’. And there is no need for any coy caricature in the springing narration of the little fable of ass and cuckoo when words and notes are worked with the energy and quality of imagination which shines through this entire recording. Hilary Finch