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