Mahler was one of the most skilful and indeed spectacular composers for the symphony orchestra there has ever been, and every experienced music-lover knows that. It might be interesting to become a musical virgin again and hear these piano accompaniments without knowing Mahler's orchestral writing; and indeed, come to think of it, some of the songs are new to me anyway, so this feat is possible to that extent. However for the most part I have had to listen to this fascinating disc as a different musical experience.
I should call it unsafe to over-generalise regarding the piano accompaniments. Sometimes, as in the Anthony of Padua song, the piano part seems a rather obvious sketch, a kind of half-way house towards a proper orchestral setting. On the other hand the song preceding it on track 7 arguably benefits from the lighter piano effect to express this lighter aspect of Mahler's genius. Particularly interesting are the four songs which are here put on record for the first time in their versions with piano. One of the four is none other than Das himmlische Leben, the grotesque folk-pastoral poem (to borrow Tovey's great expression) that concludes the fourth symphony. It is also the biggest piece out of the 15, and not all the artistry of Hampson and Parsons could reconcile me to hearing it in this beggar's garb. As for the rest, I shall quote Tovey again. Instruments, said Tovey, are there for music, not music for instruments. That is, in my own opinion, one of the wisest things ever said about instrumentation and instrumental colour. The piano is well capable of illustrative effects, like the drum-rolls in Der Tamboursg'sell however brilliantly Mahler handles funeral marches orchestrally, and throughout the recital I found it easier than I normally do to focus on the voice's melodic line in this simpler and plainer setting.
That is a major recommendation, because Thomas Hampson has a magnificent voice and a magnificent vocal technique. The very first two songs here give him the opportunity to display the power of his tone and his sure control of long notes both in fortissimo and in pianissimo effects. His sense of style and expression seems to me equally secure, and I was more conscious than I usually am of real lyric beauty and continuity in Mahler's melody. Parsons is ideally sympathetic and responsive as `accompanist' or partner, and it seems that the piano he uses is actually Mahler's own, definitely a modern instrument but what I would think of as a small grand by today's standards. I need to say at this point that I have had no access to any detailed explanatory material, because the disc I now own was given to me by a friend who found it duplicated in her own collection, and as I have the disc it is sans liner except for the frontispiece.
Given that tone-quality is even more of an issue than normally here, the recorded quality needed to be good, and I am happy to report that it is very good indeed - from 1993 but what I would think of as exemplary 3rd millennium quality. If we are to listen to Mahler on the piano we can hardly demand greater authenticity than to be given the music on his own instrument. However in the last resort the singing is what it is all mainly about, and I expect my first impression to stay with me that this is vocal work of quite exceptional distinction.