Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Stephan Genz; Roger Vignoles (Hyperion CDA67645)

Release Date: 2 January, 2008 4.5 stars

The tried-and-tested team of baritone Stephan Genz and pianist Roger Vignoles has produced a string of excellent Lieder recordings for Hyperion. This, their second Mahler disc, contains an hour-long selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and finds them in typically persuasive form. It is a recording that seems, above all, to be characterised by enormous intelligence and sensitivity, from both singer and pianist.

Most prefer to hear these songs in Mahler's brilliant and scathing orchestrations but the artistry on show here makes me glad to hear them in the intimate, piano-only versions. Vignoles shows his skill in conjuring up the sound of the military band right at the start of the disc with 'Revelge'. There's a heel-clicking officiousness to the opening, a ruggedness to the second march theme first introduced at 'Ach Bruder, ich kann dich nicht tragen' and his outburst before 'Es schlägt die Trommel auf und nieder' is magnificent. Genz is every bit as responsive to his part, pointing the text excellently, capturing the requisite mix of irony and swagger.

Genz is perhaps even more convincing in the lighter numbers. If his 'Ija!'s in 'Lob des hohen Verstandes' are more restrained than some, he makes up for it for his lightness of diction and quickwittedness of delivery, subtly differentiating between the various characters. The same virtues are apparent in a truly delightful rendition of 'Rheinlegendchen'; Genz recounts the tale with open-eyed innocence against Vignoles' touching treatment of the Ländler-inspired accompaniment.

Genz's beautiful but essentially soft-grained baritone might not have some of the steely edge that, say, Thomas Hampson has on his recording with Geoffrey Parsons from the early nineties, but he's still thoroughly convincing in the various military guises. He's puffed-up and arrogant as the Hussar in 'Trost im Unglück' (aided ably by drum beats rapped out sharply by Vignoles) and as the boy in 'Der Schildwache Nachtlied' he captures the self-deceiving belief in the rightness of war and duty, singing out magnificently at 'Halt! Wer da?'.

Time and again, though, it is in the lighter and more reflective songs that the subtlety of his interpretations comes into its own, particularly when he takes over the persona of one of the heart-broken Mädels who suffer at the hands of war. 'Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen' is as touching as I've heard it, Genz employing a rapt sotto voce judiciously but never artificially to intensify the tragedy. 'Urlicht', which brings the disc to a close, is supremely moving. The intelligence of singer and pianist are especially rewarding in songs like 'Verlorne Müh' where Genz uses all the weapons in his singer's armoury to toy with and coax the listener: there's a smile in the voice, a floated sotto voce here, a sense of impatience there. Yet never does it feel like it's the artificial product of a calculating interpretative art. The performances of 'Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt' and 'Das irdische Leben' are probably a little more measured than some might be used to but this is in line with the intimacy of the interpretations; these are detailed reactions to the texts that would be impossible in the orchestral versions.

In his excellent liner note, Vignoles writes that 'to enter the world of Mahler's Wunderhorn songs is like opening a picture book. Each page gives us another character, another fairy tale, another episode, whether happy or tragic, in the tale of human existence.' The skill with which all these situations and characters are evoked is the main virtue of this recording and the principle argument for having the piano versions of these songs in circulation as well as the orchestral. All but 'Revelge' and 'Der Tambourg'sell' were first produced in piano versions, which, to quote Vignoles, 'while clearly conceived in orchestral terms, are emphatically not "piano reductions"'.  The minutiae of Genz's response to these colourful texts would no doubt either be lost or need to be exaggerated against an orchestral palette.

This disc, then, allows us to experience these wonderful songs close-up in all their variety, humour and pathos. Highly Recommended.

By Hugo Shirley