Das Knaben Wunderhorn
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzosoprano
Thomas Quasthoff, bariton
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1999
Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and several other composers have written music based on texts from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, but the most important and famous cycle remains to these days the one set to music by Gustav Mahler.
Das Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of anonymous German folk poems and songs, published in three volumes in 1808 with heavy alterations and even with the addition of poems written for the occasion (this was considered legitimate at that time) by the two editors, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. The Wunderhorn enjoyed wide success in the XIX century because its setting and themes, which focus on the lost innocence of a remote past, and the stress on the idealized life of the “little people” was dear to the hearts of the people of that age, influenced by Romantic ideas and eager to know old legends and myths.
Mahler claimed to have discovered Das Knaben Wunderhorn (which was to become one of his favourite books) while he was spending his time in the company of the three children of Carl von Weber, descendant of the composer. Even if the hint is probably not true, it is undisputable that Mahler’s earliest musical sketches date from these years.
Mahler composed the cycle between 1892 and 1898 and published in 1899 under the title Humoresken, scored for two voices and orchestra. Revelge, written in 1899, and Tamboursg’sell, composed in 1901 had been published independently from the rest of the collection. Anyway, these were not the only compositions Mahler wrote on Wunderhorn texts, since even before them he based one of the four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen on the poem Wenn mein Schatz and, almost contemporary to the cycle, he wrote two dozen settings of Wunderhorn texts and many of them were incorporated in some of his symphonies. The Romantic spirit did not permeate Mahler’s music and he preferred to treat the poems as if they were contemporary works.
The path of the rejection of the Romantic ideals has been clearly followed by the interpreters of this recording: Claudio Abbado and the two marvellous soloists, Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff.
Abbado seems to have enjoyed himself conducting the sumptuous orchestra of the Berliner Philharmoniker and the result is an attentive and charismatic conduction: he is from time to time lyrical (I think in particular of Rheinlegendchen), troubled (Das irdische Leben) and ironic or even humorous (Der Schildwache Nachtlied), giving full justice to the richness of Mahler’s score.
One of the funniest and nice elements of Abbado’s conduction (and one of the most surprising as well) is the mock-heroic character he gives to some of the songs sung by the baritone, a feature to which Quasthoff conforms himself with what seems real pleasure. Quasthoff and Otter, for their part, work perfectly well together in a composition where it is so rare to find equally good soloists. Apart from the pompous character I have just noticed, Quasthoff is remarkable for a firm, sometimes even bold singing and for a great temperament, to which Otter opposes her exquisite, clear voice and her innocent and glamorous singing.
The balance and the vitality of this recording are maybe the reasons why it is considered one of the best ever released and why it can be defined a “classical” without fear of being wrong.