The so-called Mahler revolution is fifty years old by now, but even before serious attention was paid to his symphonies, Mahler never lost his reputation for writing songs, and it remains astonishing how richly he provided orchestral songs in particular, rivaled only by Richard Strauss. Yet sumptuous as Strauss's songs are, he didn't imagine a complete world of the kind that Mahler did for his Knaben Wunderhorn settings, where the orchestral part was so original - going far beyond accompaniments - that it spilled over into his first three symphonies. These are heartwarming songs tinged with the harsher reality of fatalistic soldiers and starving children, at once innocent, eerie, folkloric, and mythic.
There have been such great interpreters of the Wunderhorn songs that not many newcomers can rival them. The last set with two singers that rose to the highest level featured Thomas Quasthoff and Anne-Sophie von Otter under Claudio Abbado (DG), and this new one from Cologne can't match it. Michael volle and Christine Oelze have good voices of soloist quality, but they are short of imagination. These songs evoke flesh-and-blood characters with vivid emotions that cry out for nearly operatic portrayals, because they are caught in situations of love and death, despite the sometimes cheerful tunes. These readings are pleasantly one-dimensional, and that's not enough. More's the pity since Markus Stenz provides very subtle orchestral shading, although he too tends to understate the music's emotions. the recorded sound is very good, and there's a nice immediacy to the whole concert program.