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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, May 2012

This new release gives pleasure on several levels. It is always good to see an American orchestra recording, particularly one with as long and as illustrious a history as that of the Houston Symphony. One reads that it generally is too expensive to record American orchestras, but one does not have to be a Texan, or even unusually patriotic, to take pride in music-making as fine as this. I will gladly “buy American” when I am given cause.

…this new release strikes me as refreshing, in the sense that Graf and his singers have thought the music out for themselves, and have come out with a reading that really is an alternative, not just an echo of what other performers have done.

Graf emphasizes the score’s bittersweet elements; this is not a deeply tragic reading, but one that leaves the listener thinking about life’s beauties, fleeting as they may be. The closing pages, with the mezzo’s “ewig…ewig,” offer genuine consolation, with the suggestion that something of value persists even after an individual life has ended. Graf also seems to delight in the exoticism with which Mahler flavored the score. This is not Chinese music, of course, but it was a new sound world for Mahler, one that was inspired by the East. Graf is attuned to this new world, and his reading, while not lightweight, is sensitive to the departure, sonic as well as virtual, that Mahler was making in this work. Graf does not shirk from making the music sound strange; take the opening of the final movement, for example. And, despite the slowish tempos, there is electricity. I could tell, before reading Naxos’s inlay card, that this was a live performance from that ineffable thrill in the air.

Graf’s two soloists are…satisfying…Kunde and Henschel are very perceptive, and bring a lot of insight to the texts. Kunde’s singing in the first movement is more wistful than one expects…In the final movement, Henschel is rather objective, but not insensitive, and I think the clarity of her approach gives listeners enough room to make of this music what they will. In the work’s closing pages, instead of vocal riches, she offers x-ray-like honesty. In short, nothing in this reading is thrown in the listener’s face; he or she is invited into the work to participate in the making of its meaning. Simply put, this is an intellectual reading…

…I think it is worth supporting the Houston Symphony, and also, it is worth hearing a somewhat different perspective on this work from those offered by Leonard Bernstein and Bruno Walter, for example. I’m calling this one a keeper. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

Christopher Abbot
Fanfare, May 2012

Any performance of Das Lied lives or dies by its soloists, and taste in voices is a particularly individual foible. I’ve found that I have no tolerance for the type of ripe, chocolate-thick mezzo or contralto common to many recordings (and that, alas, includes such greats as Maureen Forrester and Kathleen Ferrier). Given those constraints, I find this performance to be one of the best I’ve heard.

Gregory Kunde is described in the bio included in the notes as a bel canto singer, but he proves more than adequate in the Heldentenor demands of “Der Trinklied” (hard to fake in a live concert recording). His sensitivity to the text, however, may be his strongest quality; the reiterations of “dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod” are each sung with a slight diminuendo and a touch of melancholy that are truly heartfelt. His lyrical side is heard to salubrious effect in “Von der Jugend,” while the two styles combine to make “Der Trunkene” a rousing, tipsy delight.

Jane Henschel…is a fine Mahler interpreter. Her performance of “Der Abschied” will stand up to most of the competition, but I am also taken with her handling of the fast section describing the handsome youths in “Von der Schönheit”: In a manner approaching Sprechstimme, she navigates the treacherous waters with aplomb, then immediately regains the more stately composure of the rest of the narrative. In “Der Einsame” she combines melancholy and resignation with quiet effectiveness.

Hans Graf accompanies with sensitivity and well-gauged tempos that neither drag nor rush; he allows Henschel the breathing room in “Von der Schönheit” while charging “Der Trinklied” with the kind of momentum needed to convey the angst of the narrator. The Houston Symphony plays as to the manner born. I haven’t heard too much Mahler from this source, but on the strength of this recording, I’d like to hear more. The sound production is another sterling effort by Michael Fine, placing the soloists front and center without undue spotlighting, and revealing plenty of inner voice detailing from the orchestra. Altogether, this is a real bargain at reduced price…Highly recommended. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, May 2012

MAHLER, G.: Lied von der Erde (Das) (J. Henschel, Kunde, Houston Symphony, Graf) 8.572498
MAHLER, G.: Lied von der Erde (Das) (arr. H. Albrecht for chamber orchestra) (Rubens, Morloc, Schafer, Eiche, Albrecht) OC792

…this newcomer is very good and has no serious weaknesses. Graf’s leadership is direct, energetic, sensitive when it needs to be, and authoritative. The music always knows where it is going and gets there with a feeling of sadness and farewell that underlies the piece…Jane Henschel…uses her big voice with intelligence and doesn’t try to turn the piece into an opera or reach beyond her capabilities. Kunde’s big, manly tenor projects well…he is more than adequate and quite exciting. Naxos’s sound is very good. The notes are excellent… © 2012 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide online

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, March 2012

Gregory Kunde’s high notes ring out, and with a fair range of tone colour… I found myself admiring him even more in the third song, where he phrases with more legato than is often the case. His account of the song is unusually relaxed and smilingly insouciant. The tempo seems just right too, as it also does in the fifth song, with the singer particularly attentive to those passages where birds are evoked, though with power enough on all those top As.

I can find no fault with the orchestral playing; many of the wind solos are played with great character, and the overall tone is rich and full, even if it doesn’t sound like the Vienna Philharmonic. I like Hans Graf’s pacing of the work too… The recording is very clear, especially for a live performance. I was struck by dissonances and details in the orchestral parts that I hadn’t heard before, proof that the conductor and the sound engineers have gone about their business in a serious and capable manner. Keith Anderson’s insert note is very fine. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, January 2012

The real revelation…is Graf, whose reading of the score is very impressive indeed, becoming more insightful as the piece unfolds. He can’t quite match Klemperer for sheer amplitude and nuance, but he does find an astonishing lucidity that works especially well in the trembling loveliness of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’.

In that song mezzo Jane Henschel sings most hauntingly of the loneliness and the transience of life, her delivery discreet but always subtly inflected. In many ways she is the antithesis of Baker, who sometimes strives a little too hard for effect, notably in her recording for Haitink. And while Henschel doesn’t efface memories of Ludwig here, I was captivated by her glowing, unforced response to Bethge’s texts, notably Von der Schönheit. I particularly liked her honeyed lower registers, but again it’s Graf’s lightness of touch and natural rhythms that beguile the mind and ear.

Kunde[’s] delivery has a youthful charm that’s entirely apt…

The Houstonians really do capture the evanescence of this music very well indeed; as for Graf, he maintains a sensible and steady pulse throughout, achieving a rare blend of poise and penetration as well. Thankfully the audience is very quiet, and there’s no applause at the end to break this deep, deep spell.

Is there an ideal recording of Das Lied von der Erde? Probably not, but as the talents of this newcomer are so prodigious and its faults so minor I’d say this one comes pretty close. © 2012 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Ken Smith
Gramophone, January 2012

Graf’s musical values are entirely different…clarity is prized above all, not merely in the musical line but in each little diversion along the way…this is the first Das Lied recording in a long time that made me wish Mahler wrote more… © 2012 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone, December 2011

As a whole, this is an admirable performance, in which singers and orchestra alike generally rise above themselves to deliver what is mostly an impassioned reading. © 2011 Read complete review

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2011

Arriving at a time when the catalogue has so many remarkable recordings of Mahler’s Song of the Earth, Hans Graf and his Houston orchestra offer a vibrant and distinguished release. The big and bold horn introduction sets the scene to Gregory Kunde’s heroic tenor voice as he unleashes the opening Drinking Song of the Earth’s Sorrow. When he takes his foot off the loud pedal, the lyric quality of his voice is one of great beauty. The second movement, The Lonely One in Autumn, introduces the smooth and elegant tones of the distinguished mezzo, Jane Henschel. A voice of sparkling silver rather than the burnished tones that we are used to in this work. In the hands of conductor, Hans Graf, the third movement, Of Youth, dances with an uncommon happiness, and together with Henschel’s youthful approach to the following Of Beauty, the work’s central part is a relaxation before the outgoing revelry of Kunde’s red-blooded characterisation of The Drunkard in Spring. Yes I am deeply moved by Ferrier and Walter, and even more so by Hodgson and Horenstein in The Farewell, for they may never be surpassed, but without undue emotion Graf and Henschel take us though this final movement with dignified sadness at a tempo that does not exaggerate the moment. Throughout the Houston Symphony play with considerable tonal beauty, the orchestral solos speaking of real quality. Graf’s performance as a whole is uncomplicated and brings Mahler to us with authority and idiomatic insight  From the mere whispers of the finale to the boisterous opening, the engineers have produced a fine product.

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