Playlist: Four Last Songs – when music mirrors life

Gramophone Mon 26th September 2016

Hugo Shirley takes Strauss's Four Last Songs as his starting point for a musical journey

The idea of the ‘late style’ makes total sense in the case of Richard Strauss and his Four Last Songs. In his final years, largely in response to the catastrophe of Nazism and its aftermath, he produced music of an almost Mozartian refinement that sought refuge in a bucolic idea of nature, freewheeling melisma and dappled accompaniments. A prime example is the Oboe Concerto (1945), composed for John de Lancie, or the late Duett-Concertino (1947), while in Daphne (1938), the title character’s final words dissolve into a weaving vocalise as she is transformed into a laurel tree. The Four Last Songs represent a summing up, too, of much of Strauss’s life, with the final bars of ‘Im Abendrot’ harking back to the composer’s early Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’, 1889); but Strauss’s other tone-poems, many (auto)biographical in nature, themselves imagined later life, most famously in Ein Heldenleben’s final sections, in which quotations of the composer’s works up until that point (1898) – the earliest being the theme from the overture to Guntram – are woven together before he settles down contentedly with his companion. And it’s Strauss’s stormy but contented life with Pauline, who had sung Freihild in the ill-fated premiere of Guntram, that is another central theme, both explicit and implicit, in the Four Last Songs, a relationship explored many times in Strauss’s operas: in the watchmen’s paean to marriage in Die Frau ohne Schatten, or in Christine’s fireside nap in Intermezzo. ‘Morgen!’, meanwhile – the last of the Op 27 songs Strauss presented to Pauline upon their wedding – looks forward, in its later orchestration, to the violin solo in the central section of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. But the Rosenkavalier trio must be Strauss’s ultimate tribute to the female voice. It was sung in front of the devastated Pauline at his funeral and she herself died only months later. Hugo Shirley

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