Playlist: Four Last Songs – hailing the soprano voice

Gramophone Mon 26th September 2016

James Jolly uses Strauss's Four Last Songs as a point of departure for exploring the soprano voice

The Four Last Songs marks a staging point on the long musical journey that has found composers luxuriating in the soprano voice. Strauss, more than many others, understood this most quintessentially feminine of voices and wrote with extraordinary sympathy, imagination and love for it (hardly surprising given that his wife Pauline was a soprano). The soprano voice, whose range occupies (roughly) two octaves upward from middle C, can float above a large symphony orchestra with ease, allowing for that long-breathed cantilena which forms such a central characteristic of the Four Last Songs. The inspiration for Mozart’s concert aria shares with the Strauss an intimate relationship with the singer (Nancy Storace). The late-Romantic tradition that embraces the song-cycles of Berlioz, Wagner, Chausson and Ravel, and Mahler’s song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde, take us closer to a world where the text yearns to liquefy into pure melody (Isolde’s Liebestod the end of this particular journey). It’s a route taken by Glière who dispenses entirely with words in his Concerto for coloratura, creating an accompanied vocalise (and would it be too fanciful to hear in Richard Strauss’s contemporaneous Oboe Concerto an instrumental expression of a similar melodic desire to flight?). Britten’s Rimbaud settings of 1940, the nine sections gathered under the title Les illuminations, has, in its soprano guise (the original one), a sensuousness that the tenor version lacks. Wallowing in James Agee’s gloriously evocative words, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 finds the soprano gently raised up on an orchestral cushion of breathtakingly vivid colours. And coming right up to date, our Contemporary Award-winner, Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you celebrates the power of the voice – here Barbara Hannigan’s – to fuse with the words of Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

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