It is right to adjudge Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe an expert choral conductor, and he is most highly regarded for his impeccable readings of Baroque and Renaissance composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Palestrina, and Rameau. Like his colleague Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Herreweghe doesn't want to be pinned to down to Alte Musik (i.e., ancient music) forever, and he has recorded a great deal of Mendelssohn, whose work does relate back to the older models with which Herreweghe is most readily associated. However, in time Herreweghe has begun to record Bruckner, and with Harmonia Mundi's Gustav Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn Herreweghe takes on the most sacred of post-Romantic cattle. His soloists are Sarah Connolly and Dietrich Henschel, both of whom sound fine in this music. Connolly does impart to her singing a good deal of expression and characterization, particularly in "Das himmlische Leben." Likewise, note Connolly's tenderness of delivery in "Trost in Unglück," excellent by anyone's standards. Dietrich Henschel gives a robust reading of the seven lieder assigned to him, although had he a choice perhaps Henschel would have preferred another go at "Revelge," which threatens to roll off the rails in a couple of spots.
The orchestral-vocal Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a fluid cycle that can include as many as 15 lieder or as few as 10 depending on just how many lied one wants to siphon from Mahler's symphonies. Herreweghe decides to settle on 14, skipping "Es sungen drei Engel" from the Symphony No. 3 in D minor, which would have fit here -- the disc runs only 63 minutes -- but one must assume that Herreweghe had just cause to leave it out. As it is, this is a more generous orchestral Wunderhorn than is typical; the average is a dozen lied, the canonical 10 plus "Revelge" and "Der Tambourg'sell." Singing aside, it is the orchestra that really counts in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and Herreweghe's is distinctly middle-of-the-road Mahler, neither crackling with intensity or languid and shimmering. While none of it is bad, sometimes one wants for a more pronounced rhythmic profile; while the rhythm is snappier in "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?," it seems a little too lax in "Verlor'ne Müh.'" Nonetheless, Herreweghe's Des Knaben Wunderhorn is well sung and very well recorded, and while it may not dislodge a favorite recording one might have from years past, Des Knaben Wunderhorn isn't recorded very often in comparison with the symphonies -- chances are your favorite was recorded quite some time ago. In which case it is competitive, and for listeners new to Mahler's work this is nearly ideal.