The year was 1902 – and Gustav Mahler had just married Alma Schindler. A song called ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (‘If you love for beauty’) was offered to her during their first lakeside summer together in Austrian Carinthia, where Mahler’s new summer-house had been completed the year before.


Few singers can resist including this poignantly tender song in their performances of the Rückert-Lieder, though all Mahler’s other settings of the verse of the sensuously Romantic German poet Friedrich Rückert had been written a year before, in that fruitful summer of 1901 which also saw the composition of two movements of the Fifth Symphony. The five Rückert-Lieder (not a cycle, and singers order them as they please) move from the musical incarnation of the scent of spring blossom, to a meditation on withdrawal from the world, to an existential dark midnight of the soul. And each song – apart from ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ – was orchestrated just one day after its original piano-accompanied version.

The best recordings of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder

Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)

New Philharmonia/John Barbirolli (1969)

Warner 566 9812
The listener today has two choices to make: do you prefer the five songs sung by a male or female voice? And which do you find more moving: the intimate, in-drawing piano-accompanied version, or the lush and fragrant orchestration? Though currently only available either as a download or as part of a five-CD ‘Best of…’ set, the mezzo-soprano Janet Baker’s (right) orchestral recording with the New Philharmonia under conductor Sir John Barbirolli has to remain the head-and-shoulders-above recommendation. In 46 years, no singer and conductor have shown such rapt musical empathy in this work, and no soloist, male or female, has captured quite the balance of ardour, fragility, inner anguish and vulnerability as Baker. Her valediction – she places ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’) last – achieves a sense of almost incorporeal spirituality, as she withdraws from the world. Baker’s barely discernible yet affecting control of breath, pacing and dynamic nuance is incomparable. She creates the all-important sensation that a love, and a sense of heightened spirituality such as this, is perhaps just too perfect to last. This performance is balanced perfectly between wide existential horizons and the lyrical intimacy unique to these songs.

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)

Gerold Huber (piano) (2009)

RCA 88697 567732

Top of the list of runners-up comes a male-voice, piano-accompanied version – arguably closest to the first sounds conceived within Mahler’s imagination. The close partnership between the baritone Christian Gerhaher and his accompanist Gerold Huber reveals that, in the right hands, Mahler’s original piano accompaniments can be every bit as eloquent as the orchestrations. Gerhaher’s responses to German song invariably seek out the melancholy subtext of both word and musical response, and this performance is no exception. His intimate relationship with the taste and tone of each beautifully enunciated word, and his concentration and restraint in revealing the unique chemistry of the fusion of poetic and musical sensibility, is as seductive as ever here.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)

Berlin Philharmonic/Karl Böhm (1964)

DG 463 5162

Here, the doyen of baritones meets the doyen of orchestras. This early Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performance is my preferred orchestral recording of all those made by the great singer – sadly, his uniquely intense live Festival Hall performance, piano-accompanied by Karl Engel, is currently unavailable. But this one shows him at the height of his young powers, and more sympathetically conducted than in later versions with either Zubin Mehta or Daniel Barenboim. The projection of words, effortless and instinctive, and the nuancing of each phrase is at its most subtle and intimate. And no one reveals the dark night of the soul more dramatically: Fischer-Dieskau chooses to place ‘Um Mitternacht’ last, creating an incomparable crescendo of intensity.

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Anne Schwanewilms (soprano)

Malcolm Martineau (piano) (2014)

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Here is one of the most recent recordings: a performance by female voice, and piano-accompanied. It makes its mark thanks to the uniquely gilded quality of Schwanewilms’s soprano and to the outstandingly sentient and imaginative piano playing of Malcolm Martineau. For moments – in the first two songs, ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ and ‘Liebst du um Schonheit’ – you think you want to hear the music no other way. Schwanewilms and Martineau choose unusually slow tempos, in which constantly shifting lights and colours gleam through effortlessly sustained melodic lines. The way she modulates her voice in the long reaches of ‘Um Mitternacht’ may not be to everyone’s taste; but the very sense of disturbance and struggle bring a potent new perspective to the song.


Illustration by Steve Rawlings