Four Last Songs
Four Last Songs. Das Rosenband, Op 36 No 1. Lieder, Op 68 – Ich wollt ein Sträusslein binden; Säusle, liebe Myrte; Als mir dein Lied erklang. Befreit, Op 39 No 4. Lieder, Op 27 – Ruhe, meine Seele!; Morgen!. Wiegenlied, Op 41 No 1. Meinem Kinde, Op 37 No 3. Zueignung, Op 10 No 1. Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, Op 56 No 6
Soile Isokoski sop Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Marek Janowski
Ondine ODE982-2 (64‘ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Strauss-singing doesn’t come much better than this. No doubt the composer himself, with his love of the soprano voice, would have been enthralled by Isokoski’s glorious singing. He might also have approved of Janowski’s straightforward, quite brisk conducting, as he was never one to sentimentalise his own music. With a combination of free, unfettered tone, not a hint of strain in high-lying passages, a fine legato and an amazingly long breath, Isokoski fulfils every demand of her chosen songs. To those attributes she adds just a hint of quick vibrato, which she uses unerringly to expressive purpose throughout. Add the depth of feeling she brings to inwardly emotional pieces such as ‘Befreit’, ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ and, above all, ‘Morgen!’, a perfect realisation of this oft-recorded piece, and you have performances to rival any of the greats of the past.
She reminds one most of Lisa della Casa, the first soprano to record the Four Last Songs, and Sena Jurinac. She has the same smiling timbre, the same natural style, the same avoidance of wallowing in music that contains its own proportion of sentiment. Try the ecstatic execution of the final verse of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ and you’ll understand. If, on the other hand, you prefer a more leisurely approach, there are always Janowitz and Karajan.
Janowski is obviously at one with his soprano, not only here but also in ‘Zueignung’. Refined playing from the Berlin Radio Symphony and an open recording complete the pleasure.
Four Last Songs. Capriccio – Interlude (Moonlight Music); Morgen mittag um elf!b. Salome – Ach, du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassena
Nina Stemme sop Liora Grodnikaite mez Gerhard Siegel ten Jeremy White bass Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden / Antonio Pappano
EMI 378797-2 (56’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
To borrow a phrase from Richard Osborne, mighty tents are already pitched on these fields – for the Four Last Songs Schwarzkopf/Szell, Della Casa/Böhm, Norman/Masur; for the Salome finale Cebotari/Krauss, Welitsch/Reiner and so on. But the conductor who has already got on to record a newly thought-through Bohème, a Tosca that can hold its own with de Sabata’s and a modern Tristan with Domingo need fear no competition. All the hounds of hell are let loose by the ROH’s percussion section to launch a wild but always intricately shaped and detailed account of young Princess Salome’s sickly Liebestod. Being already a searching, grown-up Isolde, Stemme, like her 1950s forerunners, now really manages to be a teenage Isolde too, by turns sweet, spooky and growing up.
The discs’s running order is cunning and effective, and both conductor and soprano are in command of the switch to Madeleine’s music-or-words dilemma. In Capriccio’s Moonlight Interlude, as in the Songs, Pappano achieves richness without overweighting; his rubato lingers rather than indulges (like…but let’s not compare). Stemme is a more torn and dramatic Countess than, say, Janowitz, Schwarzkopf or Della Casa; this performance harks back to Clemens Krauss and Viorica Ursuleac, emotion shaping the (fine) text, rather than vice versa.
As if to create a valedictory survey of Strauss, the soprano voice and the orchestra, the start of ‘Frühling’ aptly seconds the Countess’s mood. Michael Tanner’s note for the new remastering of Flagstad’s creator’s performance (see below) remarks how tempi in this work have got slower over the past 50 years. Pappano and his orchestra (what solo playing!), while never hurrying, keep the forward pace of an attentive Lied accompanist – emotional points are made without milking, matching the cool beauty of the soloist’s timbre. Stemme has vocal height and weight in equal measure and (again) really uses her text. Finally, the record is produced and engineered with sensitivity to the layout of Strauss’s instrumental and vocal textures.
Four Last Songs
Coupled with Tod und Verklärung and Metamorphosen
Gundula Janowitz; Berlin Philharmonic / Herbert von Karajan
DG 447 442-2GOR (77’ · ADD). Buy from Amazon
One of the most beautiful recordings, Janowitz’s pure, almost instrumental timbre rides the lush orchestral sound with ease. She and Karajan takes things quite slowly, but it never drags. The couplings too are first rate.
Four Last Songs
Coupled with orchestral songs
Jessye Norman; Leipzig Gewandhaus / Kurt Masur
Philips 475 8507PB (48’ · DDD). Buy from Amazon
As set down in 1982, the most commanding of all recordings, and probably the slowest. The original disc won the solo vocal category of the 1984 Gramophone Awards. Simply glorious.
Four Last Songs
Coupled with orchestral songs
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; Berlin RSO / George Szell
EMI 566908-2 (65’ · ADD). Buy from Amazon
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s several recordings combine beauty of sound with unequalled feeling for the words. This final version under George Szell, with its very special autumnal quality, as a classic.
Four Last Songs
Coupled with Cappriccio – excerpts
Lisa della Casa; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm
Regis mono RRC1192 (65’ · ADD). Buy from Amazon
Della Casa’s early-1950s version is still full of exquisite singing – coupled with some fascinating Capriccio excerpts from 1953. This was the work’s first commercial recording and, as so often is the case, has a special magic all of its own.
Four Last Songs
Coupled with Wagner Götterdämmerung – Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Brünnhilde’s Immolation. Tristan und Isolde – Prelude; Liebestod
Kirsten Flagstad; Philharmonia / Wilhelm Furtwängler
Testament mono SBT1410 (67’ · ADD). Recorded live 1950. Buy from Amazon
Here’s a live recording of the concert in 1950 when Flagstad gave the premiere of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, followed by some truly unforgettable Wagner. The performance of the Strauss is now heard in improved sound; but Flagstad, for all the richness of her singing, gives a fairly generalised interpretation compared with many that were to follow, and the conductor was never the greatest of Strauss-ians. Still, as a historic document this is an important issue. The whole disc, carefully remastered, is a treasure.
Songs with orchestra
Sechs Lieder, Op 68. Acht Lieder aus letzte Blätter, Op 10 – No 1, Zueignung; No 8, Allerseelen. Vier Lieder, Op 27 – No 2, Cäcilie; No 4, Morgen! Fünf Lieder, Op 48 – No 1, Freundliche Vision; No 4, Winterweihe. Heimkehr, Op 15 No 5. Ständchen, Op 17 No 2. Traum durch die Dämmerung, Op 29 No 1. Das Rosenband, Op 36 No 1. Meinem Kinde, Op 37 No 3. Wiegenlied, Op 41 No 1. Muttertändelei, Op 43 No 2. Des Dichters Abendgang, Op 47 No 2. Waldseligkeit, Op 49 No 1. Das Bächlein, Op 88 No 1
Diana Damrau sop Munich Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Thielemann
Virgin Classics 628664-5 (71’ · DDD · T/t) . Buy from Amazon
The tone is set, very agreeably, by the Op 68 songs in their initial mode of Zerbinetta-Ariel radiance and freedom. They are not performed as a group but with one chosen to open the programme, two to lighten its passage en route and two others in a weightier manner to bring about its conclusion. Such a framework suggests a unity of purpose but a flexibility of mood and style also. And it extends the singer’s role: she is not merely a fair-weather soprano. Darker shades, more serious tones lie within her expressive scope than one might at first suppose.
Much is accomplished. In matters of -expressiveness and coloration we have only to wait for the second song, ‘Waldseligkeit’, to hear how a sensuous mystery falls like a veil at the words ‘Und unter ihren Zweigen’, and then, a little later, to find the tone refreshed as though in the clear waters of the silver-bright brook in ‘Das Bächlein’, which follows.
Most characteristic is the beautiful quality of the head-tones used to such lovely effect in ‘Morgen’, ‘Freundliche Vision’ and ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’. In ‘Wiegenlied’ the legato is less consistent, perhaps in response to the stippling movement of the violin obbligato. More warmth and tenderness would be welcome here; more repose in ‘Der Rosenband’ also, and in other songs the tone is a little more prickly and uneven than one would wish. Fine work from the Munich players and the sensitive Thielemann.
Lieder – Morgen!, Op 27 No 4; Das Rosenband, Op 36 No 1; Meinem Kinde, Op 37 No 3; Befreit, Op 39 No 4; Wiegenlied, Op 41 No 1; Waldseligkeit, Op 49 No 1; Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, Op 56 No 6 Don Juan. Macbeth.
Anne Schwanewilms sop Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder
Hallé CDHLL7508 (68’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Anne Schwanewilms, already well known as an interpreter of Arabella and other Strauss heroines, challenges the likes of Della Casa, Schwarzkopf and Janowitz, and isn’t put in the shade by the comparison. Her silvery tone soars easily into the grateful lines of these warm, glowing songs, and she has the gift to fine down her tone to ravishing pianissimos. She catches the rich-hued character of ‘Waldseligkeit’, the intimacy of ‘Wiegenlied’ and ‘Meinem Kinde’, the sad serenity of ‘Morgen!’ and the inner intensity of ‘Befreit’, one of Strauss’s most profound settings. Just once or twice her approach seems a shade self-regarding but, by and large, these are near-ideal readings, securely supported by Mark Elder and his orchestra.
There are many masterly accounts of Don Juan in the catalogue but this one, nicely timed and richly played, is up among the best. By comparison Macbeth, Strauss’s first tone-poem and written a year earlier, seems rather an empty piece, successful neither as an evocation of the play nor as a piece in its own right. Elder and the Hallé make as good a case as they can for it and – as a whole – the programme works well, the Lieder sandwiched between the two orchestral works.
Songs with piano
‘The Complete Songs, Vol 1’
Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter, Op 10 – No 1, Zueignung; No 4, Die Georgine; No 8, Allerseelen. Sechs Lieder aus Lotusblätter, Op 19 – No 2, Breit über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar; No 4, Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten. Sechs Lieder, Op 37 – No 1, Glückes genug; No 2, Ich liebe dich; No 6, Hochzeitlich Lied. Fünf Lieder, Op 39 – No 1, Leises Lied; No 4, Befreit. Fünf Lieder, Op 41 – No 1, Wiegenlied; No 2, In der Campagna. Sechs Lieder, Op 56 – No 5, Frühlingsfeier; No 6, Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland. Gesänge des Orients, Op 77
Christine Brewer sop Roger Vignoles pf
Hyperion CDA67488 (61’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Richard Strauss was a great Lieder composer but only a small fraction of his 200-plus songs are at all well known. Admittedly, his taste in poetry -wasn’t always as elevated as that of his fellow composers, yet his music can transform rather ordinary verses. And the major poets do get a look-in. This disc includes two Heine settings, one of which, ‘Frühlingsfeier’, came a year after Salome and echoes the operatic score. This is where Christine Brewer, whose repertory includes the title-roles in Ariadne auf Naxos and Die ägyptische Helena, might be expected to be most comfortable: her big, gleaming soprano sweeps through impressively. If at first her voice seems less than ideally flexible as a Lieder instrument, especially in the earlier songs, it would be ungrateful not to marvel at what she does ultimately bring to these performances.
Opening with ‘Zueignung’, which Strauss never intended to be relegated to encore status, Brewer sounds glorious if a little staid. But she quickly lightens up, catching the palpitations of ‘Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten’ and the gem-like intimacy of ‘Leises Lied’. She positively blazes in the sunlight-evoking ‘In der Campagna’, where Vignoles’s piano captures the splash of a Straussian orchestra. Both artists bring something fresh to the chestnuts ‘Aller-seelen’ and ‘Wiegenlied’, in which Brewer floats a beautiful line over the rippling accompaniment. Having the high tessitura demanded in the rarely heard Gesänge des Orients, she clinches any remaining argument magnificently.
‘The Complete Songs, Vol 2’
Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter, Op 10 – No 3, Die Nacht; No 5, Geduld. Mein Herz ist stumm, Op 19 No 6. Schlichte Weisen, Op 21 – No 1, All’ mein Gedanken, mein Herz und mein Sinn; No 2, Du meines Herzens Krönelein; No 3, Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden. O wärst du mein, Op 26 No 2. Ruhe, meine Seele!, Op 27 No 1. Drei Lieder, Op 29. Vier Lieder, Op 31 – No 1, Blauer Sommer; No 3, Weisser Jasmin. Das Rosenband, Op 36 No 1. Acht Lieder, Op 49 – No 1, Waldseligkeit; No 2, In goldener Fülle; No 3, Wiegenliedchen; No 7, Wer Lieben will; No 8, Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen. Blindenklage, Op 56 No 2. Drei Lieder der Ophelia, Op 67
Anne Schwanewilms sop Roger Vignoles pf
Hyperion CDA67588 (66’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Not just for Salome did Strauss demand several voices in one: here he ranges from the ditzy skitterings of the Ophelia Songs, via the full-on operatic scena that is the Schwarzkopf favourite ‘Blindenklage’, to the wandering tonalities of ‘O wärst du mein!’, not to mention the tricky characterisation of ‘Ach, was Kummer’ (with its repeated ‘hm, hm’) and the naive playfulness of ‘Schlagende Herzen’.
It’s hard to dispute Roger Vignoles’s claim that Anne Schwanewilms is ‘a great singing actress’. That’s clear in every song, where both the overall tinta and the text have not just been scrupulously attended to in the head but are excitingly delivered with the heart. The occasional price to pay is in pitching (coming on to a note from above) and in vocal agility – this is a large voice and it can move through its gears quite slowly – but it’s of little significance given the repertoire, the live nature of the takes for which Hyperion opted, and the sheer intensity of the singing.
Schwanewilms achieves the full compass of the testing items noted, finds an appropriately rich skein of tone for ‘In goldener Fülle’ and manages real affection – and a degree of playfulness – in ‘Wiegenliedchen’. There’s a real experience here, knowingly and profoundly communicated. Vignoles is, as always, an equal and fully ‘worked-in’ team member. As well as being an impressive achievement in itself, this recital is a timely addition to a catalogue currently rather short of female competition in these songs.
‘The Complete Songs, Vol 3’
Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter, Op 10 – No 2, Nichts; No 6, Die Verschwiegenen; No 7, Die Zeitlose. Sechs Lieder, Op 17. Sechs Lieder aus Lotusblätter, Op 19 – No 1, Wozu noch, Mädchen, soll es Frommen; No 3, Schön sind, doch kalt die Himmelssterne; No 5, Hoffen und wieder verzagen. Schlichte Weisen, Op 21 – No 4, Ach weh, mir unglückhaften Mann; No 5, Die Frauen sind oft fromm und still. Heimliche Aufforderung, Op 27 No 3. Fünf Lieder, Op 32. Vier Lieder, Op 36 – No 2, Für fünfzehn Pfennige; No 4, Anbetung. Fünf Lieder, Op 48 – No 1, Freundliche Vision; No 4, Winterweihe; No 5, Winterliebe
Andrew Kennedy ten Roger Vignoles pf
Hyperion CDA67602 (63’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Kennedy’s selection has earlier material, with the Opp 17 and 32 groups given complete. Strauss’s choice of poets at this stage in his Lied career may not have been as sophisticated as it became but he never chose a text that didn’t inspire a clear musical portrait. Especially well pointed are two Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs (‘Himmelsboten’ and the droll love-on-the-cheap story of ‘Für fünfzehn Pfennige’) and the dark, serious ‘Sehnsucht’. The better-known ‘Ständchen’ and what Roger Vignoles’s notes call the ‘ebullient barnstormer’ ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ are placed cunningly within the recital order.
Vignoles’s playing continues to achieve a maximum of freshness and invention, and a chameleon-like closeness to his singer’s tone and line. Kennedy’s voice is young, sweet, fluent and has what some commentators call ‘sap’. Greater naturalness (and especially inwardness) will come in his live and later performances of this repertoire. In the meantime, a lot of work and study has gone into this disc and the readings attain a consistently high standard of beautiful music-making.
‘The Complete Songs, Vol 4’
Fünf Lieder, Op 15*. Stiller Gang, Op 31 No 4*. Fünf Lieder, Op 39* – No 3, Der Arbeitsmann; No 5, Lied an meinen Sohn. Fünf Lieder, Op 41* – No 3, Am Ufer; No 5, Leise Lieder. Des Dichters Abendgang, Op 47 No 2*. Das Lied des Steinklopfers, Op 49 No 4*. Sechs Lieder, Op 56 – No 1, Gefunden*; No 3, Im Spätboot**; No 4, Mit deinen blauen Augen*. Vom künftigen Alter, Op 87 No 1**. Erschaffen und Beleben, Op 87 No 2**. Und dann nicht mehr, Op 87 No 3**. Im Sonnenschein, Op 87 No 4**
*Christopher Maltman bar **Alastair Miles bass Roger Vignoles pf
Hyperion CDA67667 (61’ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
With one possible exception, these are all among Strauss’s more rarely performed songs, and quite undeservedly so. Most are highly characteristic and clearly written with affection, while those that may not immediately proclaim the composer’s identity (‘Das Lied des Steinklopfers’, for instance) are among the most interesting. Perhaps that sense of a structured improvisation may (as in the Rückert setting ‘Und dann nicht mehr’) call for a restraining hand, but more often it is such an appealing personal quality that complaint would be sourly puritanical. Indeed, some of the joy arises in just those moments, such as the inspired passage between verses in ‘Des Dichters Abendgang’, when Strauss the pianist takes over and claims his composer’s freedom.
Roger Vignoles captures well the expansiveness and generosity of the writing for piano. He is also a sensitive accompanist in songs where the piano part is relatively simple. ‘Heimkehr’, the last song of Op 15, is one of these, and this is also the exception to the songs’ general unfamiliarity. It is well sung, with finely controlled high pianissimos, by Christopher Maltman, who has all but the last five songs (mostly Op 81), which are written specifically for bass. It must be said that with the first sound of Alastair Miles, one is immediately aware of a change, not merely in the quality and nature of the voice but in its production too. Maltman is a valuable artist in many respects but recording exposes an unevenness of emission which his art is usually able to render inconspicuous ‘in the flesh’. Miles impresses deeply, down indeed to the depths of his low D flat.
R Strauss Vier Lieder, Op 27. Mein Herz ist stumm, Op 19 No 6. Du meines Herzes Krönelein, Op 21 No 2. Meinem Kinde, Op 37 No 3. Muttertändelei, Op 43 No 2. Für funfzehn Pfennige, Op 36 No 2. Nichts, Op 10 No 2 Wolf Mörike-Lieder – Auf einer Wanderung; Im Frühling, Auf ein altes Bild; Begegnung; Das verlassene Mägdlein; Er ist’s; Nimmersatte Liebe. Sechs Gedichte von Alte Wiesen
Angelika Kirchschlager mez Roger Vignoles pf
Wigmore Hall Live WHLIVE0040 (63’ · DDD · T/t). Recorded live 2010. Buy from Amazon
Few Lieder singers can match Angelika Kirchschlager in vibrant stage personality. Even heard ‘blind’, the Austrian mezzo vividly illuminates each of Wolf’s nature rhapsodies, vignettes and character sketches. ‘Auf ein altes Bild’, Wolf’s remote, other-worldly meditation on the Christ-child, is both delicate and intense, the climactic twist of ‘Kreuzes Stamm’ pointed without over-emphasis. Encouraged by the ever-imaginative Roger Vignoles, Kirchschlager nicely balances tenderness, flustered embarrassment and gentle amusement in ‘Begegnung’, while the inherent warmth of her mezzo makes the abandoned girl of ‘Das verlassene Mägdlein’ sound less of a wan ingénue than usual. If her voice sounds slightly unsettled in ‘Auf einer Wanderung’, the recital’s opener, one can -forgive some gusty phrasing for the sake of Kirchschlager’s generous commitment and -verbal sensitivity, with the song’s ecstatic climax perfectly caught.
In the wry and/or touching character studies of Wolf’s Six Songs in the Old Style, Kirchschlager the born stage animal is in her element. She and Vignoles ‘sell’ the suggestive ‘Tretet ein’, where a captive knight ironically symbolises the bonds of matrimony, with the sly, salacious wit of a cabaret song. At the other end of the spectrum, she touchingly realises the sad-sweet, valedictory meditation of the old peasant woman in ‘Wie glänzt der helle Mond’.
For all her full-blooded commitment and care for words, Kirchschlager’s coppery mezzo is not quite the ideal instrument in Strauss’s popular Op 27 group. A want of a true, silken legato is also a limitation in the exquisite lullaby ‘Meinem Kinde’. But ‘Morgen’ is moving in its unsentimental sincerity, while, predictably, the character songs are brilliantly etched. Presentation, as usual in this series, is exemplary, and the recording rightly treats voice and keyboard as equals.