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Gustav Mahler’s four song cycles, “Lieder Eines Fahrenden
Gesellen,” “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” “Lieder nach
Gedichten von Friedrich Rückert,” as well as his
 “Kindertotenlieder,” were composed between 1883
and 1904. Many of these songs provided templates for
some of the movements of his first five Symphonies.
Although it was not included on the DVD I watched,  
his 1892 song, “Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,”
from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn” became an actual
movement of Mahler’s “Fourth Symphony,” and piano
and orchestral versions of these four song cycles
are available.

Maestro Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) led the Vienna
Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic orchestras on this disc,
thereby putting the finishing touches on his Mahler video
cycle for Deutsche Grammophon. It was a wonderful way
to end it! The 1984 performance of “Das Knaben Wunderhorn”
featured soprano Lucia Popp (1939-1993) and baritone
Walter Grönroos (1929-1999). It was filmed in the
Mann Auditorium in Tel Avi. The other three cycles on this DVD
were sung by baritone Thomas Hampson (1955 – ),
and performed at the Großer Musikvereinssaal.

Fortunately, these cycles were arranged in chronological
order, which meant that I could hear Mahler’s evolution
as a composer, ranging from the folksy “Lieder Eines
Fahrenden Gesellen” and “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” to
the introspective “Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Rückert.”
They were wonderfully rendered by both the orchestra and
soloists under Bernstein; however, the three cycles by
Thomas Hampson were particularly effective. Despite the
typical slow tempi of Bernstein’s later performances,
stretching the “Gesellen” and “Rückert” cycles to the limit,
his involvement and commitment to the music was such
that the tempi seemed natural. I was amazed to watch
Hampson’s phrasing, which merged perfectly with
Bernstein’s tempi, forming satisfying works of art.
When necessary, Hampson’s rich baritone seamlessly
ranged to a beautiful high falsetto, absolutely communicating
the text. It would be hard to imagine more sensitive
renditions of these three cycles.

This isn’t to say that the “Wunderhorn” songs weren’t
also great; however, on this occasion, I felt that the
Israel Philharmonic was not on par with the Vienna
Philharmonic. Lucia Popp sounded wonderful, and while
Walter Grönroos’ performance wasn’t as impressive as
Thomas Hampson’s, I cannot fault his musical delivery
or interpretation of the text.

Peter Butler directed the “Wunderhorn” segment, and
Humphrey Burton was at the helm of the other three cycles.
Burton was Bernstein’s favorite television director, and he
later wrote a definitive biography about the famed
conductor/composer/teacher. The sound engineering and
camerawork were impressive, and I consider this 127-minute
Deutsche Grammophon release to be “essential viewing” for
Mahlerians and deserving of the highest marks. It’s also
a fitting epitaph for this conductor, who was gifted
at channeling Mahler’s world of sound.

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