Mahler: Songs with Orchestra

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: San Francisco Symphony
WORKS: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Des Knaben Wunderhorn – selection
PERFORMER: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Hampson (baritone); San Francisco Symphony/ Michael Tilson Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: 821936-0036-2

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Perhaps Mahler should have called the protagonist of his first song-cycle a young wayfarer, or so it struck me hearing Thomas Hampson nearly two decades on from his Mahler recordings with Bernstein (on DG, and now only available as a special import).

Youthful no longer, his woes seem artificially applied, with vowel modification, and the joy in ‘Ging heut’ morgen’ gruffly absent. Now he has to do the high ‘nimmer’ there in a stagey falsetto, and he takes the very optional lower notes of ‘allerliebsten Platz’ in the fourth song. Of currently available baritone alternatives I would recommend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s classic recording with conductor Rafael Kubelík.

Tackling the Wunderhorn selection, Hampson isn’t a bass-baritone, so his imprisoned man and his doomed drummer-boy – sounding more like a stern drum-major – have to dig for the low notes, unlike Quasthoff (DG) or Shirley-Quirk (Philips). The baritone-only presentation allows for one surprise: ‘Urlicht’ as immortalised in the Second Symphony for male voice rather than mezzo, following a dark drama in the same key as the scherzo there.

The female balm we need comes, up to a point, from Susan Graham’s Rückert-Lieder. ‘Um mitternacht’ works best, with gleaming voice complemented by superb San Francisco clarinets and trumpets – glorious recorded perspectives, too, as ever from this source.

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But Tilson Thomas mauls the superficial simplicity of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’. And the most beautiful song ever, ‘Ich bin der Welt’, has little of the inwardness it gets from the likes of Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. David Nice