MUSIC / Discs: A few notes between friends: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson on songs and a 'Swedish Schumann'

MAHLER: Des Knaben


Thomas Hampson (baritone),

Geoffrey Parsons (piano)

(Teldec 9031-74726-2)

THERE'S a hint of the Ploughman's Lunch about the great German folk anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn - 'The Youth's Magic Horn'. The editor-collectors didn't exactly invent the poems, but they interpreted their editorial brief fairly freely, and the end products reflect rather more what the 19th-century bourgeoisie wanted to find in popular culture than the thing in itself. But if the musical consequences could be so rich, does it really matter?

Mahler obviously thought not. The images of love, death and transcendence expressed in these artless, or mock-artless, poems haunted him. Echoes of his settings (and sometimes more than echoes) turn up again and again in the first five of his symphonies, providing hints - though often only hints - of personal meanings. Hearing the songs in the original piano versions is fascinating. At first it is hard to dissociate the notes from the familiar full-orchestral sounds, but as one adjusts to the more intimate expression and tone-quality, the link with Schubert becomes clearer.

Mahler addresses not the huge, modern concert-hall, but a group of knowing friends. Thomas Hampson's singing is well suited to this new, confidential role, but there are moments of beefy salon melodrama too - as in the ironic parade-ground strutting of 'The Sentinel's Nightsong'.

Geoffrey Parsons accompanies discreetly but with a fine ear for Mahlerian quasi-orchestral colouring. The recordings are generally good, although the microphone does seem to take the Sentinel's 'Stand back]' just a little too literally. SJ

RECORDING and critical edition in one. Accept no substitutes: this is precisely how Mahler's richly imagined Knaben Wunderhorn settings first came into the world; orchestral colours were as yet merely glimmers in his inner ear. Imagine 'Das himmlische Leben' before the Fourth Symphony, the vocal line brought down to earth, the irony heightened - a child's view of heaven in the voice of a knowing baritone.

They don't come much more knowing than Thomas Hampson. Here's a singer who really understands what lies behind the magic casements of these songs, humoresques, and ballads. The psychology is in the inflection. His many colours, his many voices, range from the coarse, flattened tones of martial hectoring, through bucolic charm and romantic enticement, to other-worldly depictions of shining trumpets and heavenly light.

It's all here to a very high level of artistry: wonderful control of legato and head-voice in 'Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen' and 'Urlicht', the imminent break in the voice just what Mahler ordered for 'Der Tamboursg'sell' (how he uses the intimacy of the microphone to breathe pathos into the final 'Gute Nacht'). Would that the characterisation were as sharp or as imaginative from the pianist, Geoffrey Parsons. Even so, an important disc. ES

BERWALD: Symphonies

Nos 1 and 4

San Francisco Symphony

Orchestra / Herbert Blomstedt

(Decca 436 597-2)

BERWALD was an original, no doubt about that. Was he also - as some have claimed - a master? The ideas are fresh and vibrant, their treatment sometimes surprising, usually cliche-free. But to me the surprises have a tendency to sound more like contrivances than discoveries. The end of the often delightful First Symphony (about as 'Serieuse' as Schubert's Fourth is 'Tragic'), with its awe-struck strings and orotund trombone, is always arresting, but just as inevitably comes the question - what is it doing there?

The Fourth seems to me on the whole much more effective precisely because it's less effect-conscious, but there is one problem in common with No 1 - the slow movement's expressive gestures don't always ring true; the pensiveness sounds suspiciously posed. The quirky but inspired Neeme Jarvi often seems to get closer to the erratic life-line of this music than Herbert Blomstedt. Perhaps that's because Blomstedt, so much at home with the profound logic of Sibelius and Nielsen, is trying too hard to find the same qualities here.

The stronger Berwald's grasp of symphonic growth - as in the first movement of No 4 - the greater the sense of involvement, and the less the cultivation of the San Francisco players seems to dull Berwald's brilliance. Even then, though, the man, with all his musical faults, doesn't quite shine through. SJ

'THE Swedish Mendelssohn', he was once dubbed. But listen to the violins as they prepare to coax in the second subject of the First Symphony, and 'The Swedish Schumann' might be more appropriate. Berwald was contemporary with both but better known at the time for his footwork than his music. His orthopaedic institute in Berlin fared rather better than his symphonies.

Unjustly so, because the style is fluent, fresh, and unhackneyed, a healthy respect for classical convention leavened with a puckish spirit of adventure. His music's strength is a playful and inquisitive nature, sharp new angles on old ways. Berwald enjoys the gamesmanship and intrigue. A tantalising theme from the slow movement of the First Symphony returns like an unanswered question in the finale; a solo bass trombone looms unexpectedly over the blue horizon of the finale's coda. Promise is more fun than fulfilment.

But then along comes a peach of a tune in the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony - enduring and unequivocal. Herbert Blomstedt clings to that one like it should never go out of fashion again. The rest is pristine, the San Francisco Symphony well and truly (dare I say it) on their toes. ES

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?