MAHLER: Des Knaben Wunderhorn

In addition to the song cycles entitled
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Kindertotenlieder, and the symphony-song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler’s settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn remain a central part of his musical legacy, since the are connected directly to the composer’s symphonies. As some of Mahler’s
best-known music, the songs are not only familiar, but also convey their meaning directly to the
listen. More importantly, some recordings, like this one, capture the spirit of the music. The fine
attention to detail, including orchestration, tempo, and balance, earmark the approach that
Philippe Herreweghe took in these performances of the selection of Mahler’s settings from the
anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

The Wunderhorn settings encompass about half of Mahler’s Lieder, with the ones he composed
in the 1880s for voice and piano. Yet with the Wunderhorn songs that he composed in the 1890s,
Mahler not only used piano accompaniment, but also scored the songs for voice and orchestra. Of
the orchestral Wunderhorn-Lieder includes twelve settings, and Mahler composed two later
songs from the same anthology several years later, “Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg’sell.” Several
of the songs are also found in his symphonies, including “Urlicht” from the Second and “Es
sungen drei Engel” from the Third, and in recent years “Das himmlische Leben” from the Fourth
Symphony has been performed along with others songs, instead of in the symphonic context
Mahler created for it.

For this recording, Herreweghe chose fourteen settings, which comprise a fine representation of
this part of Mahler’s oeuvre. The singers involved are the mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly and the
baritone Dietrich Henschel, who divide the pieces almost evenly between them. Since Mahler
created settings for vocal ranges, such as high or low voices, rather than designating vocal types,
it is not possible to distinguish between songs for male or female voice. Some of the songs lend
themselves to this, while others have associations with a gender as a result of the existing
performing tradition. Thus, it is customary to hear a female voice sing “Des Antonius von Padua
Fischpredigt,” but not necessarily the only way to do so. In Herreweghe’s recording, Henschel
performs this song, one that some male singers do not attempt. Yet with “Wer hat dies Liedlein
erdacht?!”, a song with similar melismatic passages, women often perform it, as Connolly does
in this recording.

Elsewhere, the texts of some of the songs are constructed as dialogues between lovers that some
conductors have divided between two singers. In a respected – some would say classic –
recording of these songs by George Szell (conducting the London Symphony Orchestra), a
dialogue song, like “Lied der Verfolgten im Turm” is shared by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with each singer alternating by gender. There is no indication in
Mahler’s scores for a second singer, and Herreweghe does not use this practice on this recording.
(Henschel was given “Lied der Verfolgten im Turm.”) The literal application of “him” and “her”
(“er” and “sie,” as sometimes rendered in the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn) to specific
voices is not necessary, and talented singers, like those involved with this recording, can use their
voices to convey the meaning of the text.

Beyond these considerations, one of the remarkable features of this recording is the effective
performance and recording of the accompaniments. While a number of fine performances are
available on CD, this particular one stands out for the nuances that emerge readily and
consistently in this set. The motum perpetuum figuration at the beginning of “Des Antonius von
Padua Fischpredigt” is subtle, as it helps to set up the various other figures that occur later in the
song, including the sometimes dry timpani strokes that are entirely appropriate to the piece.
Likewise, the brass execute their parts without overpowering the singer or overbalancing the
vocal line. A similar balance in the brass occurs in “Trost in Unglück,” where those instruments
must support the voice without covering it. Yet the prominent brass at the conclusion of “Wo die
schönen Trompeten blasen” are appropriate, especially when the suggestion of the “Bruder
Martin” theme used in the penultimate movement of the First Symphony emerges clearly. In all
of this, the fine ensemble that characterizes some of Herreweghe’s approach to other composers
serves Mahler’s music well. The fresh and full sound that emerges in each of the songs is a
welcome addition to the discography. While individuals may have recordings they prefer for the
singers involved, this is one of those instances where the accompaniment serves the orchestral
Lieder in ways that other recordings sometimes fall short.

Yet the voices are not without interest, as Connolly and Henschel offer their interpretations of
these familiar pieces. To hear “Das himmlische Leben” outside the Fourth Symphony is a bit
jarring for those who know the latter work. Only recently has this song been included with the
works that Mahler designated as Wunderhorn Lieder, and such presentation suggests the other
context of the song, the set of Humoresken in which Mahler at one time included the song soon
it. While it properly belongs to the work in which the composer left it, his Fourth Symphony,
since its presentation there is the culmination of various thematic links serve to introduce the
song in the three movements that precede it. When performed with other orchestral songs, the
listener does not have the benefit of such thematic links, and so it must stand on its own merits.
Nevertheless, Herreweghe’s tempos are convincing, and most of all, the sometimes full
accompaniment is never strident or out of place. At the same time Connolly demonstrates a
sensitive approach to a song that resists being oversung, that is, overly interpreted. She is
effective in allowing the vocal line to emerge without affectation, and the result is quite

Henschel also offers some fine performances. He has taken on some of Mahler’s longer
Wunderhorn Lieder, like “Der Tamboursg’sell” and “Revelge,” and as demanding as those pieces
are, he demonstrates a fine sense of Mahler’s style in some of the shorter songs, like “Lob des
hohen Verstandes.” In the latter, he works well with Herreweghe in conveying the sense of irony
that makes the song memorable.

Overall, though, it is not one voice over another that comes across as meriting attention, nor
should it be that way. The orchestra emerges as a critical element of this recording, since the
ensemble and its interactions create some vibrant performances of these songs. At its head,
though, is Herreweghe, who brings a fine sense of style and musicianship to Mahler’s orchestral
Lieder. It is a recording that stands well besides some of the familiar and respected ones in the
discography of Mahler’s music.

James Zychowicz

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
product_title=Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn
product_by=Sarah Connelly, mezzo soprano, Dietrich Henschel, baritone, Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Philippe Herreweghe (cond.)
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMC901920 [CD]