Mahler Songs

Mahler Songs

Gustav Mahler grew up surrounded by song. Echoes of popular tunes, folk ballads, and military marches, part of the vibrant soundscape of his childhood home in Bohemia, flowed into his mature compositions and enriched the flavor of his songs for voice and piano. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton have recorded three of the composer’s greatest song cycles, the Rückert-Lieder (Songs after Rückert), Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), revealing their oceanic depths of expression. The duo’s album, an outstanding addition to the Mahler catalog, preserves interpretations hallmarked by the utmost beauty and compassion for the human drama that each song conveys. “These songs are really about who Mahler is,” Sarah Connolly tells Apple Music Classical. “Everything is autobiographical. That’s why I try to put myself into Mahler’s shoes. What did he mean by this or that? I can help find answers by not adding my own stuff too much.” Joseph Middleton points to the qualities of folksong that course through so many of the songs. “I love the folky vibe on this album,” he says. “Although there are things you gain in the orchestral versions, with piano you’ve got this ability for the voice to be completely free with the text. And for somebody like Sarah, who’s a true wordsmith, it means there’s absolutely nothing that’s beat bound.” Connolly and Middleton forged their vision of Mahler’s songs in the concert hall. Long and few takes enabled both to recreate the intense focus of live performance in the recording studio. “I’ve come to record these songs after a lifetime of singing this music,” notes the mezzo-soprano. “Kathleen Ferrier once said that you have to envisage the end of the song before you begin it. Here it’s about seeing each cycle as a whole. Joe and I have worked out how to make that connection to the emotions and stories they contain without being self-indulgent.” Read on, as Connolly and Middleton take us on a personal journey through their experiences of recording each Mahler song. Rückert-Lieder “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (“I breathed a gentle fragrance”) Sarah Connolly: “These five songs are settings of lyrics by the German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert. Mahler was drawn to his verse and wrote what were later published together as the Rückert-Lieder in 1901. ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ likens the gentle scent of a spray of lime, a gift ‘from a dear hand’ to the fragrance of love. I see its melody and harmonies as being like the linden tree’s branches. They’re from the same root. It’s as if you can trace every twig; everything is beautifully harmonious and entwined.” “Blicke mir nicht in der Lieder!” (“Do not look into my songs”) SC: “Joe [Joseph Middleton] and I have done the Rückert-Lieder often enough to realize we’ve already distilled what we need to say. But there was so much magic that happened in the recording sessions. Both of us were on form, which is not always the case when you’re a singer, the voice being part of you. This song felt just right.” Joseph Middleton: “It usually opens the cycle, but we decided to place it second because it’s more introspective and anxious than ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft.’ The poet doesn’t want his beloved to look into his songs, ‘to watch them growing,’ but ends by promising to share them when they’re finished.” “Um Mitternacht” (“At Midnight”) SC: “The character in this song is totally lost, perhaps like Mahler himself, searching for redemption. That’s not necessarily religious redemption, but I think it is here. I think that Mahler’s God, that very personal, familiar ‘Du’ at the end of this song, ‘You, who keeps watch at midnight,’ is the mountains, the sky, the energy of the earth. And it’s this that brings him solace. ‘Um Mitternacht’ expresses his belief that there is redemption after the pain, without which you couldn’t live.” “Liebst du um Schönheit” (“If you love for beauty”) SC: “Mahler wrote this as a gift for his young wife, Alma, one of the most beautiful women in Vienna, who was pregnant at the time with their first daughter, Maria. He’s idealizing his love for Alma, even though the story of their relationship was different in reality. I think we all do that. I think there’s an element of him remembering how he felt when they first met. She was so young and such a bright star.” “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) JM: “I think ‘Ich bin der Welt’ is about finding what it is to truly make peace with yourself. And interpreting it is about getting out of the way of yourself! Do what the guy wrote and don’t become overly pretentious; instead, find that inner stillness you might get, for instance, while playing Bach. When you’re playing Mahler’s piano parts, you have to sing in your mind. You have to really will these sounds not to die, and to voice things in a way that leads the listener through how notes clash, and how they resolve.” Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (“When my love has her wedding day”) SC: “I think Mahler here followed the precedent set by Schubert in Die Winterreise and by Schumann in his late songs, where the knife carves deep into the heart. ‘Wenn mein Schatz’ shifts from minor to major to give this contrast between the beloved’s joy on her wedding day and her forsaken lover’s heartbreak. I can empathize with so many of these songs, because they resonate with personal experience.” “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (“I walked across the fields this morning”) JM: “Every song on this album tells a psychological story, where everything happens in the mind. ‘Ging heut’ Morgen’ describes a morning walk in the country before the narrator notes that the ‘Schöne Welt,’ this ‘lovely world,’ can ‘never bloom for me.’ So again, there’s this play of light and darkness.” “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” (“I have a gleaming knife”) SC: “Although written for voice and piano, ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ is symphonic in weight. It has that hysteria and almost operatic pain. Mahler understood how to express nighttime, how to express hallucinations. You get a real sense in this song of a vision: ‘She’s floating in front of me. Am I dreaming? Am I hallucinating? It’s terrifying—I’ll never be able to shake it off!’ And that prompts the idea that maybe he’ll kill himself at the end of the cycle, it’s really that painful.” “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The two blue eyes of my love”) JM: “There’s so much rhythmical freedom in the first three Fahrenden Gesellen songs. But in ‘Die zwei blauen Augen,’ you’re suddenly locked into this tense rhythm. Halfway through, after the poet says his companions were ‘lieb und leide,’ ‘love and sorrow,’ Mahler shifts from minor to major…and you’re back into the light.” SC: “Now he’s sitting under the linden tree and wondering, ‘Is this the place where I find peace, either through death or sleep or dream?’ It’s an extraordinary transformation.” Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children) “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” (“Now the sun will rise as bright”) SC: “The Kindertotenlieder were Rückert’s way of dealing with the loss of his two young children. Mahler had lost eight siblings during childhood and must have been fearful for daughter Maria’s life. She was born a year after he began working on the Kindertotenlieder and died from scarlet fever at the age of four, just a few years after he completed them. To be able to perform these songs, you have to see things through the child’s eyes, always with great empathy.” “Nun she’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen” (“Now I see clearly why you so often flashed such dark flames at me”) SC: “Joe and I are parents, and we can understand ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl’—we can see the energy and the light in our children’s eyes. It’s as if you try to press your entire being into that look. And we know that children, when they want something, when they’re too young even to speak, look at you with these enormous eyes and will you to know what they mean. Here Rückert and Mahler describe the eyes and the stars and the height and the remoteness, and the distance, and a loss that is so keenly felt. It’s so beautifully painted.” “Wenn dein Mütterlein” (“When your dear mother”) SC: These Kindertotenlieder require tremendous legato and are consequently incredibly hard to sing. There’s a yearning and longing in here, which is far more present than in the two other song cycles. In ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein,’ we have the idea of the child coming into her mother’s skirts, of two beings united. It’s heartbreaking. And that last line, ‘O du, des Vaters Zelle,’ ‘O you, your father’s flesh and blood,’ always gets me!” “Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen” (“I often think they have only gone out”) SC: “What can we say about ‘Oft denk’ ich’? Guilt!” JM: “And neurosis…” SC: “Yes! And the sense of ‘How could I? What an idiot. I’m a dreadful parent. How could I let this happen?’ There’s a barely suppressed hysteria that’s quite heartbreaking.” JM: “It’s a song where the voice says one thing and the piano, which is the kind of subtext, says that the parent doesn’t really think their lost children will return home again. I’m always throwing the voice off with this unsettling accompaniment.” “In diesem Wetter, im diesem Braus” (“In this weather, in this raging storm”) SC: “Those unsettled syncopations of ‘Oft denk’ ich’ segue into the final song, which is very much mad hysteria. It’s like ‘Ich hab ein glühend Messer’ in the Fahrenden Gesellen songs—it’s completely out there. It’s beating the chest, screaming, crying.”

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