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Member-review brief descriptions being what they are, there simply wasn't room for me to write "Buy this album for `Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' and enjoy the rest of it for free." In a phrase, that is exactly how I feel about this release, not that the whole album on balance is less than outstanding, but that this particular Rückert lied by Mahler is simply one of the finest things he ever wrote, and Anne Sofie von Otter is without equal in performing it.
Over his composing career, Mahler wrote a number of song cycles based on themes having common threads, and songs from some of these made their appearances, whether altered slightly or greatly, in a number of his symphonies (most particularly the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs in the early, or "Wunderhorn," symphonies). In contrast, the Rückert-Lieder (1902) were composed not as a conscious cycle, but rather were settings of Rückert poems which individually had struck resonant chords with Mahler's compositional psyche. To these poems he provided his finest settings of all, chamber-like in their intimacy and use of reduced orchestral forces, at the same time a distillation of all that Mahler had been before and a tantalizing preview of what he was yet to become in his final, greatest, works, most importantly his 9th Symphony. And, of the five lieder, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I have taken leave of the world" or "I have lost touch with the world") is in a class by itself.
There is in this lied everything of importance ever to be associated with the details of Mahler's style, and it touches on each of these details with a clarity, and in a way, as if to say, "Listen to me, and you will come to know and understand everything necessary about my musical persona." The connection with the famous Adagietto of his 5th Symphony is transparent; the tonal ambiguities of the major-minor enharmonic shifts are everywhere; the feeling of great repose, and leave-taking, is clear not only in the title but is present everywhere in the melodic thread. The instrumental setting is almost beyond description in its melting beauty, particularly Mahler's use of the oboe d'amore. And Anne Sofie von Otter provides the mezzo voice of our age, the perfect instrument for Mahler lieder. For all the versions of this lied I've heard over the years, only Dame Janet Baker, with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, on an EMI "Great Recording of the Century," comes close to matching von Otter. But nevertheless falls short.
The rest of the album is equally fine, and the coupling of Zemlinsky's "Six Songs to Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck" provides an ideal opportunity to discover this contemporary of Mahler's (and teacher of Mahler's wife), if only to gauge the extent to which late German romanticism just prior to the 2nd Viennese School schism was not "all of a piece." Zemlinsky's musical language differs somewhat more than subtly from Mahler's, being somewhat more closely aligned with late Strauss or early Korngold, but well worth the visit regardless.
In all of this, surprisingly sympathetic support comes from a most unusual source. John Eliot Gardiner, known principally for his authentic-instrument Baroque performances, and, more recently, his forays into the early romanticism of Berlioz and Schumann, provides finely-pointed direction of the NDR-Sinfonieorchester. And the recording quality is just fine, with the right amount of bloom around the orchestra without in the slightest affecting the instrumental clarity so necessary in these lieder.
I acquired this album, truthfully, to see what all the fuss about von Otter as a Mahlerian was about. Now I know. Quite simply the Mahler mezzo of our time. With a performance of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" to die for. I wasn't disappointed. And, while I don't necessarily think it to be a good practice to recommend an album based on a single track, in this case, I don't think you will be disappointed, either.