Given Mahler's status as a constructor of vast symphonies, the significance of Schubert and the art-song tradition within his musical formation tends to be overlooked. Certainly this strain of songwriting is present in many of the symphonies--most overtly in the earlier ones. But it's particularly obvious in Mahler's settings of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert, for whom Schubert himself showed an affinity in his own choice of lieder texts. This marvelous recording captures both the richly expressive detail and the structural mastery with which Mahler synthesized poetry and music in his two song cycles based on Rückert.
Waltraud Meier's distinctive, dark-hued timbre underscores the sense of gravity and hard-won vision as the Kindertotenlieder attempt to come to terms with the loss of children. Well-known for her portrayal of Kundry in Parsifal, Meier's Wagnerian background ensures a sense of brooding drama--particularly in the implacable rhythm of "Wenn dein Mutterlein" and the anxious, metaphoric storm of "In diesem Wetter"--but she also sings with the moving intimacy that is essential for the world Mahler creates: the act of self-address here serves to intensify the experience of private grief. Meier blends her voice superbly with the plaintive, delicately scored wind lines. She and Lorin Maazel--his sense for the right tempo and textural balance unerring--together give shape to the cycle's emotional progression. At times there's a harshness to Meier's upper range, as well as an unwelcome heaviness (as in the last of the four Wunderhorn selections that fill out the disc). But her deep empathy with each song's meaning has tremendous payoff, above all in the sustained incandescence she brings to "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" from the Rückert-Lieder, perhaps the single most beautiful of all Mahler's songs. --Thomas May