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Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn - Oelze/Volle/Stenz

Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn - Oelze/Volle/Stenz

Oehms Classics  OC 657

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Michael Volle (baritone)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln
Markus Stenz (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - December 2, 2010

Publication between 1805 and 1808 of three volumes of German folk song texts by Brentano & von Arnim caused a flurry of activity over decades by many composers. 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn', as the three volumes were entitled, attracted (amongst others), Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schönberg and Webern as well as Mahler himself. Typically, Mahler's approach to the raw material was different; rather than merely setting verses, he regarded the often naive, earthy strophes as quarries for symphonic development and inspiration; "granite blocks" as he remarked. He often conjoined several titles, extended words where his music demanded, added his own words and changed details in existing lyrics - truly making this collection his own.

Mahler's settings, initially for voice and piano and later voice and orchestra, first appeared in 1899 as a collection of 12 humoreskes, from which 'Urlicht' was taken (in expanded form) into the Second Symphony and 'Es sungen der drei Engel' into the Third Symphony. The later published 'Knaben Wunderhorn' collection thus appeared with 10 songs, but later two more songs, 'Revelge" (1899) and 'Der Tamboursg'sell' 1901) from Mahler's Middle Period were added, bringing the complement back to 12. In Stenz's programme, 'Urlicht' is restored (as in several other recorded sets), and 'Das himmlische Leben' (the finale of the Fourth Symphony) also added, making 14 songs in total.

Not for nothing are the first four symphonies assigned to the composers "Wunderhorn" years. as orchestral motifs derived from 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' permeate them, in addition to the aforementioned songs themselves. Thus the Knaben Wunderhorn collection is essential listening for Mahlerians wishing to truly understand the composer. The influence of these comic, folksy, tragic and droll lyrics continued to the end of his life: the treadmill ostinato from 'Das Irdisches Leben' permeates the Purgatorio of the unfinished Tenth Symphony.

In no sense is this collection of songs to be considered as a cycle. They are un-numbered, and Mahler was content to allow performers to make their own order in performance. Neither does Mahler assign particular voices in score; again preferring for performers to make their own judgements - continuing his own developmental approach to these works. He is known to have had a preference for a male voice, but he did also perform the all of the songs with a soprano, despite some of the lyrics obviously referring to a male proponent. Several of the songs are dialogues between male and female characters, and on this disc Stenz effectively uses both Oelze and Volle in Trost im Unglück, Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, and Velorne Müh'.

The wonderful Gürzenich orchestra of Cologne is one of the oldest ensembles in Europe, and premièred a number of Mahler's works, including the Fifth Symphony. On this evidence, Markus Stenz is upholding their performance traditions splendidly, conducting Mahler's colourful, chamber-like orchestrations often with as much invention as Szell in his classic version with the LSO. Soprano Christine Oelze needs no introduction; she is currently in great demand and her performance of these songs fully utilizes her creamy, well-controlled voice, with much appropriate word painting to bring out the character of her songs. She gives us a rapt 'Urlicht' and a heart-breakingly still-centred Angel in 'Heavenly Life', contrasted thrillingly with dashing orchestral interludes as marshalled by Stenz.

Baritone Michael Volle displays a remarkable range of tone colour in his songs, particularly in the military ones, which are the true heart of this collection. Mahler grew up with a military barracks over the garden wall of his parent's inn, and he was haunted all his life by the sound of trumpet calls and marches, not to mention the macabre war stories told in the bar by the soldiers. Voll performs these military songs with great expression and range, intelligently shaping even the highly-charged moments while obeying all of Mahler's copious instructions. Reviewing 'Revelge' on the ClassicsToday site, David Hurvitz reported a missing orchestral bar (57, in the section before the second "Ach Brüder..."). Listening carefully with the score several times, I cannot detect a missing bar on my pressing, which may be a later one than his. Returning to Volle's performances, I think they compare well with those from some of the other male singers of Knaben Wunderhorn, even Fischer-Dieskau, who tends to bark under pressure in the military songs with Szell.

Vocally and orchestrally, this OEHMS release of Des Knaben Wunderhorn is to be counted amongst some of the best available (e.g. Szell, Bernstein, Rattle and Chailly).

Sonically, the silky strings of the Gürzenich join ripe woodwind and incisive brass in a perfectly natural concert sound, the orchestral image deep yet with great presence and with a thrillingly strong bass response. The singers are by no means close, and they appropriately share the ample ambience of the Cologne Philharmonie hall, whose presence is well heard in the stereo track but most impressively rendered in multichannel.

There are excellent sleeve notes and biographies in both German and English, but sadly the lyrics are only in German, a considerable production oversight for which I am demoting half a star.

Very well worth consideration even if you have some of the classic editions in your collection - and with excellent sound as a bonus.

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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