If you are having a bad day and you're feeling depressed, you might not want to reach for this DVD. This recital of Mahler's beautiful but often tragic song cycles with orchestral accompaniment might just drive you over the edge. I'd prescribe Mozart for those days. But for every other occasion, this splendid DVD may be exactly what you need. Containing all of Mahler's mature song cycles (except for Das Lied von der Erde), they are magnificently sung by Baritone Thomas Hampson, Soprano Lucia Popp and Baritone Walton Groenroos and stunningly accompanied by the preeminent Mahlerian Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic.
Of course, Mahler's lieder are the seedbed of his monumental symphonies. You will recognize melodies later used for the symphonies 2-4, for example. This can make it hard to judge the song cycles in strict isolation since we are constantly reminded of something much vaster just over the horizon. I like the symbiosis between Mahler's works; it helps that they're works of genius. With Bernstein as conductor, he naturally imparts that vast scale to these relatively intimate lieder. It gives them additional resonance.
Hampson performs the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), the Ruckert Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) accompanied by the Vienna Philharmonic. His tone is round and beautiful, his diction crystalline. Emotionally, however, he is somewhat reserved. He doesn't experience the emotions of these songs, he recreates them. If you demand emotional authenticity in your lieder, real tears streaming down the singers face, you may be put off by Hampson's emotional distance. I find that the poetry of these songs provides more than enough emotion for my tastes. The accompaniment of the Vienna Philharmonic is superb, as expected. This is a great orchestra and the sound of the Musikvereinssal in Vienna, recorded in 1988 and 1990, is splendidly recaptured in this recording.
Lieder nach Gedichten aus 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' or Songs to poems from 'The Youth's Magic Horn', containing as they do so much music later used in the great Symphony No.2, will always be an addendum to the symphony for many. It helps to really throw yourself into them. Lucia Popp and Walton Groenroos do exactly that. They experience the emotions, not just recreate them, making for an interesting comparison with Hampson's performance. Since they're children's songs, this is easier to do and there's no danger of slipping into a maelstrom of bathos. The Israel Philharmonic is a younger, more enthusiastic orchestra with many women instrumentalists, as opposed to Vienna's older, all-male band. The 1984 performance seems quicker. The recorded sound is somewhat dry though not unpleasant. It is crystal clear in the DVD's DTS 5.1 format. The total time of this Region 0 worldwide disc is 127 minutes. There are the usual menus, languages and DGG trailers.
No doubt these performances will someday be surpassed. Until then, I don't think you can do better than these recordings of Mahler's gorgeous songs. Strongly recommended.