Every lover of late Romantic Lieder knows Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a treasure trove of folk melodies arrayed in glittering orchestrations. Some even know the Wunderhorn songs in their less common, but no less charming, guise as songs with piano accompaniment. But while the orchestral version of the Wunderhorn are genuine Mahler, the customarily used transcriptions of the orchestral version for piano aren't by Mahler at all; they are by an anonymous individual working for his publishers. These transcriptions were never intended to be used in concert performances but merely to serve as rehearsal accompaniments for singers. That these transcriptions were ever used for concerts performances is apparently all a big mistake.
This is a mistake which baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Geoffrey Parsons correct in the premiere recording of the Wunderhorn songs. Along with the orchestral versions, Mahler himself prepared a piano version of the songs, versions he thought to be equal to but distinct from the orchestral versions. The piano versions of the songs differ from the orchestral versions in hundreds of details. Nor are these meaningless details: they affect everything from pitches to dynamics to phrasing to the setting of the words themselves. Mahler's transcriptions even add new songs to the piano-accompanied Wunderhorn songs, which have hitherto existed only in orchestral versions.
Thomas Hampson brings his notorious intelligence fully to bear on this recording: among other things, he co-wrote the program notes for this disc. More important, however, he brings the fullness of his voice and interpretive soul. His performances of the canonical Wunderhorn songs are scary and funny and often profoundly affecting. But his performances of the "new" Wunderhorn songs are revelatory. "Urlicht," "Es sungen drei Engel einen sussen Gesang," and "Das himmlishe Leben" have previously existed only as symphonic movements. Hampson's sweetly spiritual performances return these songs to the more intimate realm of the recital hall.