First Listen

First Listen: Mahler, 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn'

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Baritone Thomas Hampson has long had a love for Gustav Mahler's music. Marco Borggreve hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Borggreve
Hampson

Baritone Thomas Hampson has long had a love for Gustav Mahler's music.

Marco Borggreve

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When someone shares with you an affinity for Gustav Mahler's music, it's never halfhearted. No one just "likes" Mahler. His music really means something to people.

During this 150th-anniversary year after Mahler's birth, events haven't devolved into an over-hyped, commercialized extravaganza. Rather, the music world seems to be honoring that intensity of feeling we have for Mahler, taking advantage of the opportunity to delve deeply and with renewed curiosity into the composer's legacy.

That's exactly what baritone Thomas Hampson has done. This year, he scheduled more than 50 Mahler performances, including a live video webcast from the composer's birth-house. And there are two Hampson Mahler recordings, including this new disc of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), which can be heard here in its entirety for the week leading up to its Dec. 21 release.

In this collection of songs, composed over the course of about 10 years, you hear the genetic underpinnings of Mahler's symphonies, which these days are considered essential repertoire for any orchestra and conductor. But the familiar themes you might pick up in listening go far beyond simple raw material for something bigger. There's a window into the worldview, and maybe even the soul, of the man himself.

Hampson arranges the songs to proceed through four different topic areas, and the result — with lesser-known and more familiar songs and themes intermingling — is a powerful experience. The sequence of "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" (later to become the third movement of the "Resurrection" Symphony) through "Revelge" and on to "Der Tamboursg'sell" is, frankly, unsettling, beginning with the protagonist's knowing, world-weary chuckle and ending with his broken heart.

Hampson is backed by the Wiener Virtuosen, who, as principal players of the Vienna Philharmonic, live and breathe Mahler. The textures are transparent, intimate and maybe even risky for the players — or Hampson, or both. But the payoff is exquisite: a recording worth delving deeply into and a great way to cap off Mahler's anniversary year.

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First Listen