Monday, 7 February 2011

Thomas Hampson Mahler Des Knaben Wunderhorn DVD

Without knowing Thomas Hampson's Mahler, you can't really know Mahler. Hampson's just recorded a new version of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the  Wiener Virtuosen. It's very good and I'll review it later. But to put the new CD in context,  remember Hampson's DVD version from 2002.  It's based around a live performance in Paris, but what lifts it beyond the league of yet another recital is that Hampson and Wolfram Rieger, his pianist, talk about what the songs mean. This DVD is a masterclass in what Lieder (and Mahler) is all about.

Hampson goes straight to the heart of the Wunderhorn ethos. The poems were collected from oral folk sources by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. Folk origins, but shockingly deep. Their almost revolutionary impact is hard to appreciate today. These were songs of ordinary people, not church and state. They express a feisty, almost subversive, individualism. They explore psychological issues and magic, long before the concept of the subconscious was formulated. What we take for granted today as "modern" in many ways stems from the Wunderhorn spirit with its irreverent independence and psychological depth. As Hampson says "we must never question the beauty, value and indigenous right of human beings to think and to hold their own beliefs". "Song literature", he says "would be infinitely less rich without these songs, which have so many musical possibilities."

Hampson groups his recital into themes and talks about each in turn. The first part refers to "Fables and Parables of Nature and Man". The poems make mordant comment on human nature, disguised as the actions of birds and animals. Lob des hohen Verstanden has a competition between a cuckoo (who keeps time but isn't inventive) and a nightingale (whose song is complex though elusive). A donkey decides on a whim who'll win. Hampson spits out the donkey's hee-haw with bitter irony. Again the wilfulness of nature (and other people) comes through in Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt. The saint preaches to some fish, who make a show of listening, but immediately go back to their own ways. Mahler's notes indicate "with humour" on the piano part but satire was not lost on him. "This piece is really as if nature were pulling faces and sticking its tongue out at you" (said Mahler)  "But it contains such a spine-chilling panic-like humour that one is overcome more by dismay than laughter". 
War, loss and death are recurring themes in the Wunderhorn saga. Hampson calls some of these "negative love songs" for they are neither optimistic nor sentimental. Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz, with its march rhythm just slightly off-beat, resolves in the evocation of trumpets and drums, the tragedy understated. Hampson and Rieger immediately launch into Revelge, that most nightmarish of songs, where a lad's serenade to his love is a parade of skeletons, marching in formation in the dead of night. Rieger's playing is manic, horrific, the moments of glorious melody sounding even more grotesque in context. Hampson spits out the words, like a protest at the barbarism of war and its toll on human life. "Tra la lee. Tra la ree" is no lullaby here, but a mocking protest. Fischer-Dieskau didn't do it like this: in comparison he sounds almost too accepting. Rieger's staccato playing is almost like a volley of machine-gun fire. As Hampson notes, the music evokes a mad "Drang", of Stravinsky-like fervour, the Grim Reaper gone mad. With our modern ears, it's like a forewarning of the slaughter of the trenches. Der Tambourg'sell, which follows, seems all the more tragic in its surrender to death. 

The last part of the recital is sub-titled "Transcendence of Life". Hampson's vivid description of Lied des Verfolgten im Turm is brilliant. He refers to the picture by Moritz von Schwind, showing a huntsman imprisoned in a tower. Meanwhile a row of elves are busily trying to saw down the bars on the window to help him escape. "Gedanken sind Frei" is the dominant phrase in this song, thoughts are free, ideas and imagination empower us to break out from circumstances. A revolutionary concept, even now. The "female" voice urges conformity to enable survival. The "male" voice, perhaps the voice of the artist, seeks triumph in the purity of ideas. There is another dialogue in Wo der schönen Trompeten blasen, a mysterious equivocal encounter between the living and the dead. Hampson and Rieger also pair Das irdische Leben and Das himmlische Leben – earthly and heavenly life. For Hampson, the mother and starving child are both victims of the brutal process of life that chews people up, not so different from the soldiers mown down like wheat in the battlefield.

This DVD is a superb introduction to Mahler, to Des Knaben Wunderhorn and to Lieder in general.   Listen to how impassioned Hampson is when he speaks of human rights and dignity, and of the need to stand up against oppression.  The year after this DVD was made, Iraq was invaded. Thomas Hampson  had the courage and integrity to protest. Real Lieder singing is about meaning, however painful,  not about singing quietly or prettily as some believe.

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