Maybe most thrilling songs ever composed is Gustav Mahler’s cycle of five mourning songs about death of the infants – Kindertotenlieder. Texts for all five songs composer choose from ample collection of 428 poems written by German romantic poet, Friedrich Rückert. In 1833 and 1934 he wrote numerous poems about illness and death of his children. These poems were part of private grieving, perhaps even a kind of self-therapy, and the author did not intend to publish them. Rückert was professor of oriental languages at The University of Erlangen and in Berlin, master of thirty languages and outstanding translator of essential poetic, wisdom and religious works of Middle and Far East, especially literary documents of ancient civilizations. German culture owes him Indian legends and tales, arabic makamas and folksongs. Inter alia Rückert made translations of Koran and Wisdom of Bramins in six volumes. He was also the author of inspiring poems many composers used for their song cycles.
Mahler composed the cycle Kindertotenlieder in first four years of the century. It was most dramatic part of Mahler’s Vienna period – last year of his directorship in Vienna Philharmonic and increasing hostility against him after resignation. New cycle was premiered January 29, 1905 with Friedrich Weidemann as soloist and orchestra conducted by the composer. Four years after he composed these songs, Mahler’s daughter Maria died to scarlet fever. Later Mahler wrote, he was placing himself in situation of father mourning his children, but after such traumatic experience he wouldn’t be able to compose these songs.
There are many good renditions of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder cycle. Considered as absolutely classic recording is the one featuring Kathleen Ferrier with Wienner Philharmoniker under the baton of Bruno Walter recorded in 1949. And it is the reference recording for many later performances. Among highly interesting interpretations of the cycle is that which has been published by Hungaroton in 1980 (SLPX 12044). Hungarian mezzosoprano Klára Takács did a wonderful job here. While maintaining the lyrical mood, she discreetly grades tension leading the listener to a climax and pervasive sense of loss. Singer's voice sounds great, is deep and saturated, but still transparent, fully interacting with the orchestra. The same with instrumental layer of the work which was never limited to accompany the soloist, but together with her vibrant voice is building multi-dimensional space of the work. Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by György Lehel gave here excellent performance, one of the whole series published by Hungaroton Records in the eighties.
On the B-side of the album publisher placed other great Mahler’s cycle – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Travelling Journeyman) with baritone Sándor Sólyom Nagy and with the same orchestra and conductor. Soloist was one of distinctive European vocalists known in the eighties as an expert of late romantic repertoire. He was also known from performances in Wagner’s operas. This cycle was finished in 1885 and is way easier to interpret than composed twenty years later Kindertotenlieder. Travelling journeyman (or in less precise, traditional translation, Wayfarer) is author’s porte-parole who was under impression of unhappy love affair. Poetic texts were written by composer but the idea of first song was taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. There are also some thematic links between this cycle and First Symphony. The Nagy’s interpretation is very traditional and emotional in conception and execution. And he has proved he had the whole talent he needed for interpreting in such way the most popular Maler’s songs.