Susan Graham; Thomas Hampson; San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS 821936-0036-2 (SACD)
Christiane Oelze; Michael Volle; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln; Markus Stenz
OEHMS Classics OC 657 (SACD)
Michael Tilson Thomas brings the San Francisco Symphony’s decade long self-produced Mahler cycle to a close with a curiously low-key album of orchestral songs featuring baritone Thomas Hampson and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. Hampson, widely regarded as the leading Mahler singer of his generation, holds the lion’s share of this disc in concert performances of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and five selections from The Youth’s Magic Horn, while the equally eminent Graham (though less familiar in this repertoire) contributes five of Mahler’s settings of the poems of Friedrich Rückert. Hampson has recorded Mahler many times before and has not particularity outshone himself in these performances, which strike me as conspicuously mannered – one might even say hammy – and not entirely accurate. Graham’s luxuriant interpretation of the Rückert songs makes a much stronger impression, save for a few nervous moments when she is forced into her upper register. Tilson Thomas and his engineers skillfully balance the orchestra in deference to the voices and, quite unlike earlier installments in this cycle, his tempos are leisurely and relatively rigid. Those looking for mere beauty in singing may be safely assured of a comfortable evening with the superstars.
I have nothing but praise for the latest Mahler recording by Markus Stenz and Cologne’s venerable Gürzenich orchestra. The third entry in the Oehms Classics projected Mahler cycle follows estimable performances of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies with Mahler’s orchestral settings of 14 songs from the 1808 folk poetry collection The Youth’s Magic Horn. Soprano Christiane Oelze’s laser-sharp pitch and purity of tone conveys the down-home sentiments of these rustic texts with a beguiling freshness, while Michael Volle is an admirable foil with his forceful yet flexible baritone in the recurring soldier’s laments such as Reveille and The Little Drummer Boy. While Stenz is rarely histrionic in the Bernstein manner, he has a way of gently molding a phrase or timing a silence that is equally effective. Stenz’s approach is in many ways reminiscent of George Szell’s classic 1968 recording, including the fact that both singers perform in dialogue in certain selections, an idea that evidently never occurred to Mahler himself. The sound of the orchestra, recorded in studio, is outstanding in both execution and recording, with the horns in particular sounding both youthful and magical.