Gustav Mahler - Songs with Orchestra

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GUSTAV MAHLER - Songs with Orchestra - Susan Graham (Mezzo-soprano) - Thomas Hampson (Baritone) - Michael Tilson Thomas (Conductor) - San Francisco Symphony Orchestra - Hybrid SACD - 0821936003626 - SFS Media 60036

Now that the dust has cleared from the impact created by the tremendous recording of the Symphony No. 8 by Gustav Mahler, and by the complete symphonic cycle for that matter, a cycle that was almost 10 years in the making, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra now release the final disc of this impressive series of award winning recordings. This time around the focus is on the Songs with Orchestra, songs from which most of the basic thematic material of the symphonies is taken. These songs contained all the fertile imagery and pregnant ideas on which Mahler established his massive symphonies. The Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen were recorded live in September 2009 with baritone Thomas Hampson. Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, also with Thomas Hampson, were captured during a live concert in May 2007. The Rückert-Lieder were recorded live, also in September 2009 with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

My immediate attention, on listening to this CD for the first time, was drawn to the wonderful Rückert-Lieder from 1901, and in particular to the Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am Lost to the World) song. This is Mahler doing what he does best, writing music around the subject of loss, death, the beyond. And of course I had to pull out my copy of the iconic recording on EMI with Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli from 1969 to have something solid of a yardstick to compare against. I must say that even though Baker's voice conveys the poem's deeper sense of sadness, Susan Graham's beauty of tone and overall delivery fits Mahler's view of this poem even better. Everything after the 4:00 point is pure magic here. Listen to how Graham's voice and the orchestra have become one, how the beautifully lush strings hold the voice aloft during the high soft notes. Notice also, after the singing ends, how this orchestra brings out all of the beauty within Mahler's orchestral writing. Defining the orchestral textures and strands has been one of this conductor's finer points throughout this whole cycle.

And of course, Thomas Hampson's strong devotion to this music, as in his formidable interpretation of 'Das Lied von der Erde' in a previous release during this cycle, is very much apparent in his approach to the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen and the Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It is hard to believe that a baritone voice could display so many colors or convey so many emotions this well. And what better way to end a glorious Mahler cycle than with a deeply felt and vocally beautiful version of Des Knaben Wunderhorn's Urlicht, the same setting usually sung by a female voice in Mahler's Second Symphony, now captured and portrayed even better by Thomas Hampson's warm baritone voice.

It goes without saying that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra players have once again delivered the goods. I would even say that this has become a top Mahler orchestra, with a beauty of sound rarely matched and an old-school perception and conception of the world given us by Mahler. Bravo!!!

Jean-Yves Duperron - August 2010