Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Lieder (1901-02) are a glimpse into the composer’s soul. The carefully chosen poems by Friedrich Rückert (Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Um Mitternacht and Liebst du um Schönheit) depict Mahler’s emotional world, his insecurities and worries. I talked to the American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton about Mahler’s human music and how to prepare for a collection of songs that are both “spiritual” and “all about nerves and butterflies”.

Why did you choose to sing the Rückert Lieder?

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – that song is the reason I wanted to sing the cycle. When I was at Tanglewood Music Institute in Massachusetts, a friend of mine was sitting at the piano one day and said, “Jamie, you have to listen to this song.” I read through the words and the music and by the end of it I was in tears. I knew I had to do this piece. To me, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is the core of the group, its emotional anchor.

Is that why you decided to place it at the end?

Yes! I really love Um Mitternacht and it may be a bit easier to end with that, but to me, Um Mitternacht is about searching for an answer, and it feels like there’s still a reaching at the end of the song. For me, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is more of a conclusion. It’s about finding peace and happiness – that place in the universe where that contentment sought in Um Mitternacht is finally found.


Andrew Manze describes “a world of music that only Mahler could have created, a world out of the world”, the world the composer describes in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and that both the singer and the listener need to step into this world for the performance. Is that how you approach these songs?

I love Mahler’s music because it is so human – I connect very deeply with the folk melodies and subjects. The Rückert Lieder are very spiritual – shedding the human coil and moving on – but if I leave the ground entirely then I can’t do justice to Liebst du um Schönheit or Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder. Those songs are all about nerves and the butterflies in your stomach when you’ve found someone you’re interested in. I tend to connect very closely with those emotional responses – those human truths.

In opera you can slip into a role. How do you compare that to singing Lieder?

It’s not the same for every piece, but with the Rückert Lieder, I am thinking of my own experiences – feeling those butterflies or questioning what’s out there. When I’m singing Ich atmet einen linden Duft, for example, I might be remembering how it felt to receive a beautiful gift – every detail of that room and that moment. It’s really about connecting to the emotional core within myself, more than connecting to Mahler or another character. I tell these stories through my own experiences.


In recitals it must be more difficult to get the story across to the audience, especially when the audience doesn’t speak the language of the songs. Do you therefore focus more on the drama of the music than the text?

With a good composer, the text and music go hand in hand. Mahler is wonderful at coloring the words with his music – which makes my job much easier! As a storyteller, I want to make sure there aren’t barriers keeping the audience from understanding the story. I want them to be able to lose themselves in the experience, so I work to make the words and music as interwoven as possible, using any bits that the composer has put in to help flavor and color the words. When I don’t speak a language fluently, I work with language coaches to make foreign words sound as natural as possible. But the most important thing is putting the story out there in a truthful way – when I invest, the audience goes along.


Have you ever thought about singing an English translation of the songs?

I think part of the beauty of song is in the melding of the music and language together. I do Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs in Czech, rather than the more commonly done German or English, because the language itself has a melody. When it comes to singing in English, I prefer to do repertoire that was written in English. I do like the idea of singing to an audience in their native language, so I’ve started to program more English recitals – but as a classical singer, it’s often a fun challenge to be understood even while not singing in your native tongue!


Do you sing the Rückert Lieder in both the piano and the orchestral versions?

I do, though I haven’t yet had many opportunities to do the orchestrated version. Mahler’s orchestrations are just magical. His reductions for piano are also beautiful, though, and I’m very proud of the recording with Brian – I think Brian Zeger is an orchestra! I have found that having the orchestration in your ear can come in handy when doing the piano version. When I was first doing these songs, I was really nervous about Um Mitternacht because it’s very difficult to know where in the line you come in. But I got a great piece of advice from Susanne Mentzer, who mentioned that hearing all the solo instruments come in with the orchestra made it easier to memorize. I started listening to the recorded orchestral version and that did the trick! Mahler’s piano reductions are wonderful, but his real magic happens in the orchestra.

Do you approach the two versions differently?

Not in terms of interpretation – though when I work with a pianist, we get to go on this journey together to create the world of the Rückert Lieder. That’s a lot easier to do with just one person! There are wonderful conductors out there who can make that possible with orchestra, but often there just isn’t time to put it all together, so it’s a bit of a trade-off. With orchestra, you have so many different colors, but with piano, that collaborative element and the extended rehearsal time sometimes makes it feel more personal.


You must have listened to dozens of recordings. Which ones are your favourites?

Janet Baker is my absolute favorite – her concert repertoire is just so special in so many ways. And I love Christa Ludwig! I don’t understand how she does what she does with that voice, but I love to listen to her interpretations and how she uses the language. I’d love to study the Fischer-Dieskau recordings, but I have to be careful what keys I listen to because I learn very strongly by ear. If I’m just getting to know a piece, or coming it back to it after a long break, I have to make sure I listen to things in the correct key – otherwise, it feels like I’m a bit off when I’m singing!

Click here to see Jamie Barton's upcoming performances.