Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a peculiar assemblage. The songs were written over a period of seventeen years, the first nine written for soprano or baritone and orchestra: twelve settings for voice and piano followed. Many were released as part of Mahler’s three volumes of Lieder und Gesänge, others, like “Urlicht” and “Es sungen drei Engel”, were incorporated into Mahler’s symphonies. The Orchestre de Chambre de Genève’s performance further complicates the origin story of this collection or pseudo-cycle, as a number of the songs are accompanied by orchestrations written for them by Detlev Glanert in 2013.

Dietrich Henschel and the L'Orchestre de Chambre de Genève
Dietrich Henschel and the L'Orchestre de Chambre de Genève

The production at the Victoria Hall stages all 24 songs – an ambitious production, aiming for coherence. Transforming the evening into a ‘Ciné-Concert’, with the songs presented alongside a specially-written film, was an attempt to inject a little excitement into quite a lengthy programme. It was also a method of imposing narrative order onto something disconnected and modular.

The source text, a popular collection of anonymous German folk poems collected in the early 19th century by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, is a muddle of realism and fairytale, tragedy and humour, love stories and war songs. Nietzsche saw them as the link between the Apollonian cultural order and the chaos of the natural world; Goethe as essential household reading for any proud German. Mahler saw these poems as “blocks of marble” which anyone could sculpt as they saw fit.

This performance took that concept further, weaving them into a sort of opera, a story projected on-screen behind the performers. Dietrich Henschel is a strong enough performer to pull off the feat of being watched twice over, in a kind of mirror image, for two hours (at some points, with full frontal nudity on-screen). Wiry and intense, standing static and stiff-shouldered, he was slightly less at ease on stage than on screen, where his seriousness comes across as brooding. However, he is a powerful and experienced Lieder singer. His diction is excellent, his consonants snap off in the most Germanic fashion possible, and his tone is robust and resonant. Despite the occasional moment of strain in the higher range, his low notes were wonderfully rich and warm.

Still from <i>Des Knaben Wunderhorn</i> © Clara Pons
Still from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
© Clara Pons

Musically, these are traditional, old-fashioned Lieder, more Schubertian than one might expect from the man who wrote “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” just a few years afterwards, but they have their moments of beauty. Henschel’s “Nicht Wiedersehen” was a highlight of the evening, tender and sombre at once. Meanwhile, Glanert’s orchestration is discreetly Mahlerian, only occasionally leaning into a more modern Romanticism.

As for the film, this is Henschel’s third collaboration with Clara Pons, after Schubert’s Schanengesang and IRRSAL / Tryptichon einer verbotenen Liebe, based on the works of Hugo Wolf. It is a tremendously ambitious project, and will likely divide audiences. Visually, Pons’ work is a masterpiece. The lighting is stunning – chiaroscuro bedroom scenes, candlelit wakes and bowls of apples worthy of Dutch masters – and much of the aesthetic atmosphere is very effective, from snowy pastoral scenes to summer battlefields. At several striking points the lovers, nude, fall into black water in slow motion, while bubbles rise up around them.

Still from <i>Des Knaben Wunderhorn</i> © Clara Pons
Still from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
© Clara Pons

There are some issues with the narrative of the first half, though, much of which is essentially ‘beautiful young woman appears and presents herself to older man for sexual concourse’. The second part, however, is denser and darker, a sort of lascivious take on the Wozzeck story, if the madness were replaced with a lot of very performative smoking. (Perhaps not incidentally, Henschel has performed Wozzeck several times before.)

At times, beautiful though the film is, it sits slightly oddly alongside the Lieder. If the songs were to be woven into the narrative, creating a new opera, why not go the distance and add surtitles? Many subtleties of the associations were lost, particularly as the programme didn’t include lyrics. For instance, one might gather that a song about fishing scored a scene of sexual assault, but miss that “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” has undertones of seduction and coercion: “the carp with roe / have all congregated; / their jaws gaping, / intent on listening! / Never did a sermon / so please the fish!” In the next scene, in which the victim is putting on make-up onscreen, hearing a song about summer birds, “Ablösung im Sommer”, one might not understand that the cuckoo in it has fallen to its death while a nightingale sings on. In other words, some of the subtlety Pons’ clever creation was being lost on its non-Germanophone audience.

Then again, perhaps malleability is written into the sources of these songs – Mahler’s blocks of marble – and the whole performance is meant to be open to interpretation. In that case, it roundly succeeds. Either way, it remains a beautiful and thought-provoking performance.