So how do you tackle a recording of Mahler's Wunderhorn songs, tales of soldiers, spirits and lovers from German folk-poetry? There's everything here from a brooding military march with a distinctly anti-war message (Der Tamboursg'sell) to the childish, coquettish lightness of Verlor'ne Muh, and chamber orchestra textures that seem to change completely from one song to the next.
The easy bit first: Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, whose pedigree in Mahler needs no rehearsal. Chailly's gone for two fine lieder singers with plenty of operatic experience: soprano Barbara Bonney and baritone Matthias Goerne, and between them they have just the right combination: accuracy and intelligence, with Bonney's silvery lightness and Goerne's dark velvet voice, puckishness and power. Some listeners are going to miss the weight of some of the bigger-voiced opera stars who've recorded these songs, but you sense that for Chailly this isn't the point: these are songs with chamber orchestra, and diction and characterisation are more important than sheer size and weight of sound from the singers.
Mind you, on that score there are a few caveats: Bonney doesn't sound entirely comfortable in Wer hat das Liedlein erdacht, her breathing too audibly stretched by the long phrases. Goerne gets grainy when he has to really turn up the volume lower in the voice, which I find quite enjoyable...others may have more of a problem with it, but there's no denying that his drummer-boy facing the gallows is a powerful portrayal. But these aren't the only voices to consider: Chailly gives Urlicht to mezzo Sara Fulgoni, and Revelge to the late Gosta Winbergh, and these are two of the highlights for me, Winbergh's dramatic tenor a tragic tattoo against the brutality of war.
So, there are plenty of reasons to like or dislike this disc, depending on your point of view...but the clinching factor for me is Chailly and the Concertgebouw. If you decide there isn't the character you're looking for in the voices, you get it from the players; Chailly seems to have the rhythms of Mahler's music in his blood now, and his tempi and expressive gestures feel utterly natural. The recording has a wonderful sense of air about it, a lovely ambient glow: Decca knows where to put the microphones in this hall, especially for Mahler. This is presumably one of Chailly's last Mahler recordings with the Concertgebouw, and he has every reason to feel quietly proud of it.