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Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)


Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2021
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Mellor
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: July 2023
Total duration: 61 minutes 10 seconds

One of the finest Mahlerians of our time, Dame Sarah Connolly brings her fierce intellect and glorious voice to the music she has spent a lifetime studying and performing. This is the first release in a series curated and performed by Joseph Middleton that will champion the complete piano-accompanied Lieder of Mahler.

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Today, Mahler is remembered primarily as a symphonist. Writing emotional and no less richly scored statements of faith and faithlessness, the conductor-composer nonetheless maintained almost constant contact with Lieder during his life. It was the crucible of his talent. Many of the principal themes in his symphonies stem from song, while others encompass singing—both for solo voice and massed chorus. And there are moments, like the Adagietto in the Fifth Symphony, where poetry may fall silent, though its eloquence shines through. Equally, the composer’s rich catalogue of songs, from his very earliest folkloristic ditties, to Das Lied von der Erde, completed just two years before his death, reveals as much about the complex character and overlapping points of inspiration that combined in the figure of Mahler.

Before he reached Das Lied von der Erde, his late symphonic settings of Hans Bethge’s German translations of ancient Chinese poetry, two other poetic sources had dominated Mahler’s attention. The first was Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano’s cherished volumes of adapted German folk poetry. First appearing between 1805 and 1808, their texts became Mahler’s almost constant companion towards the end of the 19th century. But as the Romantic era came to a close, the composer found himself drawn to another figure from its literary roll: the Schweinfurt-born poet Friedrich Rückert. If the Wunderhorn songs represent innocence tempered by irony and experience, Mahler’s settings of Rückert reveal a more philosophical, world-weary approach, albeit holding the hope of returning to the guilelessness of youth, as had been communicated in his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

Dating from the mid-1880s, these four songs were composed during a peripatetic period. The composer had left Vienna’s university and music conservatory to start work as a conductor, cutting his teeth in the pit at a spa theatre in the Tyrol. Slowly, promotions followed, and he made his way around a series of increasingly important Central European opera houses, including Kassel, where he wrote much of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Like his earliest songs, written at the start of the 1880s in response to a frustrated attraction to his childhood friend Josephine Poisl, Mahler’s accounts of the wandering figure who is a frequent feature in songs by Schubert and Schumann were composed in response to another infatuation. Johanna Richter, the new object of Mahler’s affection, was one of the sopranos at the Royal Theatre in Kassel. Desperate not to capitulate to his feelings, which he described as a ‘continuous and altogether intolerable struggle’, Mahler eventually wrote to Richter in August 1884 about a ‘solitary wayfarer’. Clearly, the songs were already in their inception.

‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, the first, borrows heavily from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The beloved’s wedding day, turning to mourning, as well as the little blue flowers, doubtless forget-me-nots, are all taken from a poem in Arnim and Brentano’s collection. But like the editors themselves, Mahler takes the text and runs, turning folkloristic impressions into something of much greater emotional veracity. The traveller has shrugged off all woe in ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’, its peppy tune later finding its way into the opening movement of the First Symphony. But, like the initial song, there is a sting in the tale, and all pretence has vanished by the time we reach ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’. Here, the traveller is more like the jaded and addled protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise than the melancholy innocent in Die schöne Müllerin. And it is the imagery of those cycles that pervades Mahler’s final song, ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’—again invoked in the First Symphony—with its partings and absent companions, showered by linden blossom.

Mahler himself bid farewell when he wrote ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, his final setting from the Wunderhorn collection, in August 1901. New realms beckoned, with the composer turning instead to Friedrich Rückert. While some of the Franconian poet’s contemporaries had denigrated his work, seeing him as a proponent of Biedermeier sentimentality, musicians always responded to his poetry with much greater alacrity. There are hundreds of settings of Rückert’s words, with Schubert leading a charge that would be taken up by both Robert and Clara Schumann, as well as Berg, Brahms, Loewe, Pfitzner, Reger and Strauss. Arguably, none of these composers, had as strong a kinship as Mahler, however, even if the full power of that connection would only be revealed after the composer had completed his ten settings.

Like Mahler, Rückert did not have a happy life. In the winter of 1833-4, he and his wife Luise suffered a great tragedy, when both their three-year-old daughter (also Luise) and their five-year-old son Ernst died of scarlet fever. Rückert poured his grief into nearly 400 Kindertotenlieder, many of which were only published in 1872—six years after the poet’s own death. While Rückert’s reputation had waned, the posthumous publication of revised editions of his verse, as well as a new biography, during the last decades of the 19th century revived his fortunes. And it was doubtless thanks to these books that Mahler was inspired.

The same summer that he wrote ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, Mahler composed seven Rückert songs: ‘Ich atmet’ einen linen Duft’, ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’, ‘Um Mitternacht’ and ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden Gekommen’, taken from various collections; and the first, third and fourth of a cycle that would likewise be entitled Kindertotenlieder. The following year, after Mahler had married the glamorous Alma Schindler, he set Rückert’s ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ as a gift for his new wife, who was pregnant with their first child, Maria. In 1904, with the couple now expecting a second daughter, Anna, Mahler returned to the Kindertotenlieder. Perhaps realising how precious his children were to him, as well as remembering the premature deaths of many of his own siblings, Mahler aligned himself with the grieving Rückert, writing the second and fifth songs to complete the cycle. Little did he know that, in 1907, Maria would die of scarlet fever, the very illness that had claimed Rückert’s own children. ‘When I really lost my daughter’, Mahler said to a friend, ‘I could not have written these songs.’

The group that is now known as the Rückert-Lieder, though originally published separately, proves no less emotionally acute, albeit opening in lighter terms. The perfume of the linden tree that fell on the wanderer in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen returns at the beginning of these settings. Here, their ‘lovely fragrance’ inspires glittering piano arpeggios, before settling into a purling lullaby. More anxious is ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’, revealing something of Mahler’s longing for seclusion. Now based at his own villa on the banks of the Wörthersee in Carinthia, he had constructed an impressive composing hut in the woods behind the house. Yet, for all the song’s hermitic qualities, assurance is given that the beloved will be the first to experience its music—a promise that, in Mahler’s life, would come true the following summer.

‘Um Mitternacht’ is a dark night of the soul. Each of its statements of time brings about a crisis, deepening and darkening, until the poet reveals both his own weakness and that of mankind, recalling a similar watershed in the Third Symphony (with a text by Nieztsche). Luckily, for Rückert, God can still provide strength, and the song ends on a more positive note. Certainly, when Mahler wrote ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ in 1902, it was in a much happier mood, thanks to the newfound joy of marriage and imminent fatherhood. Yet, even here, in a text previously set by Clara Schumann, Mahler reveals a fretful quality. Perhaps, a truer account of the Mahlers’ marriage is in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, one of the composer’s most insightful songs. Like the composer himself, a solitary figure is placed outside the bustle of the world, while his wife, prevented from writing her own music, has, according to her diary, ‘sunk to the level of a housekeeper’.

The Mahlers were not always happy, but there can be no doubt that their troubles deepened significantly with the death of their daughter in 1907. Possibly prophetic of those events, and certainly empathetic of Rückert’s plight, the Kindertotenlieder offer a fragile picture of grief. Removed from the bold colours of the early symphonies, they look to the much sparer style of Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony (which quotes one of the songs in its last movement). Yet however tragic the cycle’s tone can prove, Rückert’s poetry holds the promise of light beyond. ‘The day is beautiful on those hills’, we are told in the fourth song, while in the fifth, despite the raging storms, the children are ‘protected by God’s hand’. With that hope in mind, the work closes on a more elegiac note, though, perhaps, it is, like the parents’ reassurance in the penultimate Lied, as illusory as the other comforts in Mahler’s world of song.

Gavin Plumley © 2023

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