Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Mahler
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Mahler
WORKS: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
PERFORMER: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Dietrich Henschel (baritone); Orchestre des Champs-Élysées/Philippe Herreweghe
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901920
Of Mahler’s song cycles, Youth’s Magic Horn is the most difficult to bring off. All the other three are united by a common subject matter, and even show a development in the treatment of it. But this set of songs is more like Schubert’s Schwanengesang, which can pick up or drop an item or two without making much difference. The tone of these early-ish Mahler songs, a kind of wry, macabre or dryly humorous one, is no easy matter to maintain – those that have a place in the early symphonies seem more at home there. The nearest equivalent in English to the poems is A Shropshire Lad, also tricky to get right musically. The settings are too sophisticated for folk-song simplicity of interpretation, but it is, as many eminent examples have shown, all too easy to lapse into archness or to underline gruesome or comic effects with irritating results.

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The two singers here have superb voices, and Philip Herreweghe’s accompaniments leave almost nothing to be desired, unless you like your Mahler very sharp-edged, which these rarely are. Sarah Connolly has a rich, sometimes plangent mezzo voice, occasionally lacking in the power needed. Dietrich Henschel is highly intelligent and vocally exceptionally well equipped, but as usual there are times when he seems to be wilfully imitative of his role model Fischer-Dieskau, and like him he can be hectoring. I find the Chailly disc with four soloists the most satisfactory in a field where greatness of performance has so far proved elusive. Michael Tanner