Thomas Hampson and Mahler's Wunderhorn

By Brian McCreath

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Baritone Thomas Hampson has been devoted to Gustav Mahler's music since he was around 19 or 20, when, for a long commute in his native state of Washington, he checked out a cassette of the composer's First Symphony from the library.  As he described it in a recent interview, "As the symphony pulled me in I was slowing down more and more to pay attention. I wasn’t inebriated, of course, and there was no bad weather to slow me down, but there I was driving 30 miles an hour on a freeway. At that point I pulled over at a rest stop to avoid causing an accident, and wound up being an hour late. From that point on I started talking to other musicians non-stop about Mahler. I started to listen to his symphonies, and quit listening in the car!"

Now, roughly 35 years later, Hampson is one of this country's great opera singers, and his entire 2010-2011 season is built around Mahler's music.  It started on the 150th anniversary of the Mahler's birth in July with a recital in the very home where the composer was born and is continuing with more than 50 concerts of Mahler's music with, amongst others, the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, two orchestras with a deep and direct connection to Mahler.

And one of the real highlights of the season is Hampson's new recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the set of songs, written over a decade, that provided the DNA for many of the composer's symphonies.  It's just been released and is available from ArkivMusic.

In this collection of songs, composed over the course of about 10 years, you hear the genetic underpinnings of Mahler's symphonies, which these days are considered essential repertoire for any orchestra and conductor. But the familiar themes you might pick up in listening go far beyond simple raw material for something bigger. There's a window into the worldview, and maybe even the soul, of the man himself.

Hampson arranges the songs to proceed through four different topic areas, and the result — with lesser-known and more familiar songs and themes intermingling — is a powerful experience. The sequence of "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (later to become the third movement of the "Resurrection" Symphony) through "Revelge" and on to "Der Tamboursg'sell" is, frankly, unsettling, beginning with the protagonist's knowing, world-weary chuckle and ending with his broken heart.

Hampson is backed by the Wiener Virtuosen, who, as principal players of the Vienna Philharmonic, live and breathe Mahler. The textures are transparent, intimate and maybe even risky for the players — or Hampson, or both. But the payoff is exquisite: a recording worth delving deeply into and a great way to cap off Mahler's anniversary year.

(image:  Marco Borggreve)

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