VOCAL PIECES
by RML

re:opera


Mozart

Exsultate Jubilate Concert Arias

R. Strauss

Vier letzte Lieder

 

~Exsultate Jubilate

1 - Elly Amelling, English Chamber Orchestra, Raymond Leppard

2 - Arleen Augér, Bayerische Rundfunk, Leonard Bernstein

3 - Arleen Augér, Salzburg Mozarteum, Leopold Hager

4 - Cecilia Bartoli, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, György Fischer

5 - Kathleen Battle, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, André Previn

6 - Maria Bayo, Orquestra Sinfonica de Galicia, Victor Pablo Perez

7 - Barbara Hendricks, Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner

8 - Emma Kirkby, Academy of Ancient Music, Cristopher Hogwood

9 - Lucia Popp, English Chamber Orchestra, György Fischer

10 - Christine Schäfer, Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

11 - Kiri Te Kanawa, London Symphony, Colin Davis

 

~Vier letzte Lieder

1 - Arleen Augér, Wiener Philharmoniker, André Previn

2 - Montserrat Caballé, Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Alain Lombard

3 - Lisa della Casa, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

4 - Melanie Diener, Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Claudio Abbado

5 - Renée Fleming, Houston Symphonic Orchestra, Gustav von Eschenbach

6 - Heather Harper, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Norman del Mar

7 - Anja Harteros, Staatskapelle Dresden, Fabio Luisi

8 - Barbara Hendricks, Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch

9 - Soile Isokoski, Runfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski

10 - Gundula Janowitz, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

11 - Sena Jurinac, Stockholm Philharmonic, Fritz Busch

12 - Michaela Kaune, NDR Radiophilharmonie, Eiji Ouse

13 - Hanne-Lore Kuhse, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Václav Neumann

14 - Felicity Lott, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi

15 - Charlotte Margiono, RFO Holland, Edo de Waart

16 - Karita Mattila, Berliner Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado

17 - Ricarda Merbeth, Weimar Staatskapelle, Michael Halász

18 - Elisabeth Meyer-Topsoe, Copenhagen Philharmonic, H Bihlmeier

19 - Birgit Nilsson, Sweidish Radio SO, Leif Segerstram

20 - Jessye Norman, Gewandhaus Orchester, Kurt Masur

21 - Adrianne Pieczonka, Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice, Friedrich Haider

22 - Lucia Popp, London Philharmonic, Klaus Tennstedt

23 - Lucia Popp, London Symphony, Michael Tilson-Thomas

24 - Leontyne Price, Philharmonia, Erich Leinsdorf

25 - Anneliese Rothenberger, London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn

26 - Anne Schwanewilms, The Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder

27 - Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Berliner Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester, Georg Szell

28 - Elisabeth Söderström, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Antal Dorati

29 - Elisabeth Söderström, Welsh National Orchestra, Richard Armstrong

30 - Nina Stemme, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano

31 - Cheryl Studer, Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli

32 - Sharon Sweet, London Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

33 - Kiri Te Kanawa, Wiener Philharmoniker, Georg Solti

34 - Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Berliner Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan

35 - Deborah Voigt, New York Philharmonic, Kurt Masur

 

Whether Richard Strauss intended to make a song cycle is a question of debate. In an interesting essay by Timothy L. Jackson, it is explained that Strauss did think of composing two extra texts by Hesse, Nacht and Höhe des Sommers, but the truth is that he himself organized the idea of the first performance of the 4 songs and invited Kirsten Flagstad to sing them, provided that a great maestro would conduct them - of course Wilhelm Furtwängler was the one who fulfilled the task. There is also a controversy about the "letzte", since Strauss did compose an extra song, Malven, for Maria Jeritza, but we have to remember that this is a far less ambitious work and a private gift to a friend.

 

The première was in May, 22nd, 1950, with the songs performed in the following order: Beim Schlafgehen, September, Frühling and Im Abendrot. It was his publisher Roth who changed the order to the usual Frühling, September, Beim Schlafgehen and Im Abendrot (all of them based on poems by Hesse, with the exception of the last one, a setting of an Eichendorff poem). He also gave the collective title "Four last songs" - Strauss didn’t give them such a name. Jackson also suggests that Ruhe, meine Seele, a song previously composed but orchestrated soon after the completion of the Four Last Songs, should be included in the cycle, because of motivic connections (the orchestral theme to apear in the world "Not" in Ruhe meine Seele, labelled by him Not motive). It is important also to know that the songs were composed in the following order: Im Abendrot (May 6th 1948), Frühling (July 18th 1948), Beim Schlafgehen (August 4th, 1948) and September (September 20th 1948). However, the order arranged by the publisher is the one generally adopted, since it follows a kind of "season logic" - Frühling and September being "sunlit songs", the first more animated than the second, Beim Schlafgehen and Im Abendrot revealing a darker atmosphere, the second ending with the contemplation of death. This is the order we’re following to introduce the songs.

 

The richness of poetic description of Strauss’s setting of Hesse’s Frühling is beyond the power of words. Voice and orchestra are one in this song - it is one perpetual long musical phrase where the soprano emerges sometimes from the thread of sound woven in the heart of the orchestra. It is very important to remember that, although Flagstad was the one chosen for the première, it was not her voice in Strauss’ mind when he composed it (according to Jackson, it was rather a tribute to a victim of end-of-war nightmare, which was the case of the Norwegian soprano, accused of being a Nazi collaborator just because she decided to follow home her husband, who held a public position in his country). By 1950, Flagstad was not on her prime and it is really high for her sometimes. Anyway, Strauss’s ideal soprano is said to be his wife’s, Pauline de Ahna, whose voice was described as a most luminous jugendlich dramatisch. Anyway, this song is probably the most vocally demanding in the cycle - the range is enormous and the soprano must have the necessary projection to carry over the orchestra, which is stronger here than in the rest of the cycle.

 

The whole Frühling is based on a certain pattern of ascending phrases, which illustrate the idea of the upward movements of plants, of the sun, of human activity in spring. So, we start with a dark atmosphere with lower instruments and the soprano in the lower register of her voice for In dämmrigen Grüften. We notice that the strings are playing already an upward pattern here. Then, in "Von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften", the soprano goes up and up and so the orchestra, we have the violins and higher woodwind and the effect is like opening a window and the sunlight entering through it. Then in "Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang", lots of mimetic effects appear - such as the flutes’ trill and the soprano melisma in "Vogel" to illustrate the birdsong. It is also important to notice how the orchestra antecipates many of the intervals to be sung by the soprano during the whole song. The next stanza is where the "upward" phrasing gets more evident. The orchestra repeats the pattern all the time and the soprano is taken to her extreme note in the word "Wunder". In the third stanza, where all the excitement of the arrival of the spring gives place to a more subdued realization of the bliss brought by it, a contrasting orchestral theme starts to prevail - a downward one which repeats itself during the whole passage to appear in the soprano voice during the "deine selige Gegenwart" passage. The song ends in the atmosphere of those "Redemption" passages in Wagner operas, with higher strings and woodwind, harp and major key.

 

September also has two patterns, described by Norman del Mar as: "the first - which opens the song - alternating a gentle undulation of chords with a wide melodic span" and the second is the exact melody of "Der Sommer schauert" in Norman del Mar’s word "one of its composer’s most generous melodies although it never occurs twice the same, being a series of variants [of the above described] figure". However, I would develop del Mar’s comment on saying that actually motive two is already a derivation of motive one - the undulation of seconds, either major or minor, being the real seed of this song. It appears all the time in the vocal line in words such as "Blumen", "Sommer", "Gartentraum" and "Müdgewordenen". However, it acquires "life", i.e., developes into a soaring melody in the appearing of the word "Sommer lächelt". Also, in "seinem Ende entgegen" a theme related to the sunset in the opera Daphne appears in the horn. The horn eventually takes our second motive in a soaring melody in the end of the song. It is also important to mention the incredible tapestry of sounds during the whole song, involving flutes, violins - wonderfully called by Del Mar as "chriping, trilling and rustiling" - "in some thirteen parts", he also reminds us. This song, with its strongest structural sense and autumnal atmosphere is a masterpieece, we can say without the fear of sounding repetitive.

The third song is the favourite with the audiences. The encore generally is this one. This song has clearly two parts: the "day" part and the "night" part. The day part starts in the deep end of the orchestra, with the lower strings soon followed by the high ones in imitation until the soprano enters repeating this musical idea. This "dark" phrases in the double-bass are roughtly the main motive in this part, which is rather arioso in style, with a more fluid structure. Lots of beautiful musical effects appear still in the "day" section. When "gestirnte Nacht" appears we have flutes, celesta and violins (remniscent of the silver rose scintillation in Der Rosenkavalier) to show us the starry night; the "tired child" is illustrated by the soprano with a downward melisma; "allem Tun" has some staccatto phrases on lower strings - a bit comic, as if to show that "all things to do" are unimportant; and one should notice how all the orchestra rests in quietness when the word "Schlummer" appears. It is quite noticeable that the "day" part is rather gloomy, while the night part is essenstially blissful, because it reveals the moment when the soul leaves the worldly ado to float freely in the magic realms of night. This experience is related first by the solo violin in a melody which is a development of our first motive, but now it has an exquisite acompaniment- in the higher strings and gets higher and higher. Then, as Norman del Mar reminds us, this melody is taken by the voice exactly as in Strauss’ Morgen. This section is the moment where our motive is really developed and it is going to appear here continuously. The ascending phrase which describes the soaring into the realms of night is closely related to the soprano phrase. It starts with the basic motives (the notes sung on "Und die Se-e"), but here the motive is completed by an extra note forming a descending major third (f-eb-db) and then, starting from the last note we have an upward arpeggio of a major chord (db-f-ab) - this "codetta" to our motive is the whole idea for the upward phrase for the "Flügen schweben" soaring melody. The starry night of the "day" section here becomes "the magic circle of night", but also gets its "silver rose scintillation" and the soprano is taken to her lower note in the word "Nacht". A wonderful resource is also the piling up of the basic motive to give us the idea of "tausendfach" in the end of the song.

 

The fourth song is rightly the "conclusive" moment of the cycle - it is the one with lots of references: the Not pattern of Ruhe, meine Seele, the bird trills from Frühling, the undulation from September in the orchestral introduction, Tod und Verklärung in the orchestral postulde - we could even say that the idea of the solo violin should remind us of Beim Schlafgehen. It is based again on two opposed ideas - the richly melodic phrases on the strings in the opening and the downward interjections in the horns. Those themes join beautifully for "So tief im Abendrot", the larks’ trills work as a third musical leading idea and they work beautifully in the end of the song, when the organ like solemn orchestral sounds together with the trilling flutes make us see the sunset in the mountains, the birds flying in the sky. This is also the most melodic song in the cycle and its meditative atmosphere reflects the whole idea of the cycle - that there is time to live, but there is time to die too.

 

In theory, the Four Last Songs are a very lucky piece due to its richness of discography, but the fact really is that this is rather the result of the ambition of most sopranos and the acceptance of most mediocre conductors. Very few of these performances are really worth while - because - it is very important to stress - this is a VERY difficult piece.

 

We start our adventure with two most important performances - those featuring some of Strauss’ favourite conductors: Karl Böhm and Fritz Busch. In both these performances, we are going to find faster tempi and a sense of forward movement, very typical of Strauss’ own conducting style. Also the singers adopt a very direct phrasing and treat some passages as "ornaments" (and not as "principal" melody). Today listeners could think that their performances are a bit insensitive and they are not entirely wrong.

 

The Busch performance is rather a curiosity. It is a live performance with very problematic sound - and the soloist knew the songs for less than a month. Luckily, it is Sena Jurinac, whose uniquely warm and silvery voice works beautifully for Strauss - but the truth is that, after all those wonderful expressive performances we are going to talk about, it is a rather forgettable piece of singing. In Busch, we praise the understanding of structure and passion for clarity. If we have to keep a souvenir as these songs used to be performed according to the older Straussian tradition, the Böhm is the one to have. It is a mono recording (so is Busch’s), but very clear. Böhm is wonderfully clear - in no other performance, the structural quality of the four songs as a cycle appears so immediately. However, the faster tempi and detached articulation do sound insensitive to our ears. Although I think that not necessarily because Busch and Böhm knew what Strauss himself would like they are right, but what they bring to this piece is really unique and should be in any serious collection. I couldn’t regret more that Lisa della Casa was the soloist chosen by Böhm. Although she is in easiest voice (Frühling sounds like Ridente la Calma under these circumstances), she couldn’t be more phlegmatic. Everything she is singing about seems to be "oh, how pretty is my voice".

 

As she had done with many other Strauss pieces, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the singer who settled the style in which these pieces should be sung. When the Böhm recording was released, Schwarzkopf’s earlier recording (in mono sound too) with Ackermann was its direct rival. Although some may found her mannered, Schwarzkopf is in a world unknown to della Casa. In 1954, her voice was at its best, floating beautifully through Strauss's long lines, and the smile in her voice in Frühling is most welcome. However, most listeners will prefer her second recording with Georg Szell. In the 60's, it was somewhat late for her, but she is a very cunning vocalist and disguises it the best way she can, even if she cannot desguise the fact is that top notes tend to be hooty and the low ones to be spoken or thrown in chest voice. Interpretatively, it is far improved than the otherwise fresher-toned earlier account. She gives a serene account of the songs, surprisingly and very appropriately so in Frühling and offers some exquisite floated mezza voce when necessarily. I think that many fans of this recording should like the fact that she sings it almost as a "popular" singer would sing Gershwin’s Embraceable you - let’s call it a "Billie Holiday Four Last Songs" - there is not lots of voice here, but lots of verbal insight. The recording has Schwarzkopf recorded a bit close to the microphone and the orchestra a bit backwards, but not dangerously so. Although Ackermann has far livelier tempi and his mono recording is clearer, Szell has the better structural understanding and plays the effects in the score Ackermann lets too often pass unnoticed. In its discrete way, the Hungarian conductor beautifully paints the atmosphere and gives forward movement to his basically slow tempi. As a matter of fact, there IS a Schwarzkopf/Szell recording that is really superior to this one. It was made in the Holland Festival and has wonderfully spacious recording, Schwarzkopf in healthier voice and Szell’s conducting is really incandescent.

 

Gundula Janowitz naturally is everybody’s idea of Strauss soprano and her recording with Karajan was expected as a major event. In interviews, the conductor explained how he made Janowitz listen to the orchestra and the orchestra to Janowitz, so that they could blend to perfection. He also told that this was one of his very favourite recordings. I am happy that he was happy with it, because I am not. I can’t think of other way of describing his conducting - it is oily. The phrasing is unclear in a helpless way - it gives you rather an impressionist vision of the piece, for you can’t find the outline of phrases or of instrumental sound. It does sound like a pizza - a capricciosa pizza - there is lots of stuff there, but you cannot discover WHAT. It is really a pity, for Janowitz, once past the low notes in the beginning of Frühling, is simply heavenly throughout, especially in the 3rd song, where she practically has no rivals. Her performance has a moonlit extatic quality that makes it unique.

 

If there is a soprano dear to every Straussian, it is Lucia Popp. Not only her voice is everything Strauss’s music calls for, but also she dealt with it in a way one could only call passionate. Her first recording with Klaus Tennstedt is a classic and - I won’t lie - my really favourite one. To start with - nobody sings the four songs as beautifully as she does. She is full of life in the first one, incredibly melancholic in the second, heavenly in the third and her fourth song has what Hofmannsthal would have called the "Geheimnis der Verwandlung" - it is transcendent, with ist dies etwa der Tod? produced with less and less vibrato until we have a dead sound in "Tod". Moreover, her incredible attention to the text gives life to every verse and, in some moments, one feels that her singing of each phrase has the same inflection the verse would have without music. She is wonderfully partnered by Klaus Tennstedt, who knew how to make a blending of the older (faster and more articulate) and newer (slower and more atmospherical) traditions of performance of this piece. I haven’t seen a conductor so masterly in the art of rittardando and accelerando. And it is done in the most natural and consequent way. As a final blessing, EMI recorded it wonderfully with soprano and orchestra as an unique entity, allowing for utmost clarity. If you want to have ONE recording, this is the one. My only complain is - WHY the solo violin has to be so "gipsy"-like??? I dream of listening to it with economic use of vibrato - just to know how it is...

 

When Popp went to the studio for her second recording, it was under very sad circumstances. She was already very ill and knew she was going to die. This information makes it hard to assess this performance from such a favourite singer. Trying to be objective, the first song is the less successful one. The tone is sometimes squeezed and high notes may be abruptly interrupted rather than finished. However, when the demands are less heavy on her, one can savour her warm tone and imagination. Compared to her first performance, it is not particularly positive, although there are moments with extra insight and delicacy, such as "Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt" in September. She is still interesting compared to some contemporary releases. She is more comfortable than Hendricks, more imaginative and varied than Augér, to start with. Tilson Thomas’ conducting is somewhat superficial, but effective. He clearly concentrates on the fact that it is beautiful music and tries to make it the prettier he can. Well, it does sound beautiful and has a good level of clarity. Also, his tempi are very well chosen. Sony’s recorded sound is pleasant, but not completely natural.

 

Birgit Nilsson decided to record it too late in her career. In the early 60’s, her performance, under a sensitive conductor, could have been a beautiful experience. As it is, although she clearly shows to have all the good ideas, she is fighting against her powerful voice to make it a lighter and softer one. This makes her sometimes to be under-the-note. However, I guess that Nilsson’s fans would like to have it. I remember that, when I listened to it for the first time, I was amazed that, in her only Brünnhilde/Elektra days (this is from 1970), she could still offer a not bad performance of these songs. The recording is incredibly boxy and it is difficult to say much about the orchestra under these conditions. Segerstram’s tempi are not bad at all.

 

Caballé’s performance is incredibly puzzling. Her voice is of the right kind for this music, but she is so fussy about tempi, dinamics and phrasing that she results on sounding simply weird. Frühling is the main victim - she stresses the wrong notes and words all the time, places pianissimi where there should not be or loud notes when there should be soft ones... It’s really messy. In the other songs, she’s less eccentric, but there still are lots of sliding and weird dynamics. However, if there had been a point behind all that, what is eccentric could have been called challenging, but Caballé clearly is unaware of what she is singing and treats the piece as if it was the Chants d’Auvergne. Sure, there are some beautiful moments and, even if Im Abendrot sung entirely on mezza voce is really uninteresting, it sure is a display of legato. The recorded sound is very warm and, if Alain Lombard had took the option of really conducting instead of following his whimsical soloist, it could have been interesting.

 

Here I’d need Jack Palance to say "Believe it or not!", but the truth is that Erich Leinsdorf’s conducting is amazingly good. His performance with the Philharmonia is simply impressive. His choice of tempi is incredibly successful - flowing but not excessively fast - and the level of clarity is astonishing too. Also, he shows real understanding of the structural sophistication of the pieces and does all that offering richest orchestral sounds. The Philharmonia is in excellent shape and RCA has marvellous recording. I understand that Leinsdorf and Leontyne Price were a team, but the fact is that she is totally inadequate as a soloist for these songs. She is in good voice but is stylistically alien to Strauss style. Just listen to her In dämm'rigen Grüften - she sounds as if she was singing Nobody knows that way I feel this morning (yes, it is of Dinah Washington I’m talking about...). Boy, she sounds fierce here! Ah, there’s all the Price mannerisms here - sliding, smoky low notes, leaving the note abruptly. It all works in Verdi, but sounds really weird here. Considering that MARGARET Price never had a studio recording and that she was in shining form in 1973, it makes one thinks of what this might have been.

 

If I had to point out ONE conductor to exemplify how the four last songs should be conducted, it would be the Strauss specialist Norman del Mar. It is simply perfect. While he keeps utmost clarity and accuracy, it has a larger-than-life quality. The orchestra seems to be a sunlit ocean. It is simply too beautiful for words to describe, but - you know - it was too good to be true. WHY Heather Harper had to be called only to ruin it? This disc has Elisabeth Harwood in other songs and she is very very fine. Why was not she invited for the four last songs? Harper is in unwieldy voice and there is nothing to redeem her performance. I can’t even call her singing amateurish, because she sounds worn most of the time. The recorded sound is very nice too. A pity.

 

A rather morbid curiosity is Hanne Lore Kuhse's recording with the Gewandhaus Orchestra at its best. It is sad that the soloist is so disappointing - often below pitch and offering various examples of sloppy phrasing. Václav Neumann goes for the egg-timer approach - I have never heard any recording as insensitively fast as this one.

 

Kiri Te Kanawa was in heavenly voice in her first recording with Andrew Davis. Her phrasing and interpretation are also beautiful and she is among the most successful singers in this piece. I just wished she had a better partner. Andrew Davis is not bad - only it is undistinguished as a whole. Kapellmeisterlich is the word which comes to my mind. But if you want to listen to this with Kiri at her best, this is the performance you’ll have to live with. In her second performance, the voice is simply less fresh and, her interpretation is rather anonymous. Although Solti’s conducting is very good, forward moving and very clear, his approach is too inflexible and maybe it has something to do with Kiri’s absentmindness here. For instance, in the third song, the "Flügen schweben" is overdone in its "faster-and-louder" phrasing, spoiling all the magic of the moment. Decca’s recorded sound is very clean and the Vienna Philharmonic is in great shape, but the sirupy solo violin playing is a drawback. The rest of the disc shows the soprano under a best light, her approach to the songs, although not the most insightful, is varied and rich toned - her account of Malven is probably the most exquisite I have ever heard. Solti is again too inflexible accompanist and one lacking in nuance. The piano could have been recorded in a more natural perspective too.

 

Although there is no inbuilt charm in Elisabeth Söderström's voice, her recording for EMI is stylishly sung and Richard Armstrong envelopes her singing in rich orchestral sounds, clearly captured in spacious perspective. A beautiful recording. Some five years earlier, Söderström's rendition of these songs had been caught live, Dorati conducting. There the voice sounds curiously less fresh and the orchestral sound is somewhat recessed.

 

I am almost sure that the best-seller recording in this discography is Jessye Norman’s. In a certain way, it is definitely a unique experience and its most interesting feature is Norman’s singing. Hers is the fullest toned performance in the discography. In Beim Schlafgehen and in Im Abendrot, she is particularly successful on creating a nightly atmosphere and her dark mezza voce works beautifully. The "heavy weight" quality of the performance is guaranteed by Kurt Masur’s incredibly slooooooooooooow conducting, especially in Im Abendrot. It is beyond defense and does no favour to the structure of the piece. It is a miracle that Jessye Norman has such a long breath. Any other singer would need oxygen... In a nutshell, keep it for Norman’s poetic and majestic performance, sung in firmest and warmest tones, but Masur seems to be conducting this on Valium.

 

Masur's second recording has more fluent tempi and, although the New York Philharmonic offers less rich sonorities than the Leipzig Gewandhaus, it would have been a competitive issue if the recorded sound did not favour the soloist the way it does - especially when Deborah Voigt offers one of the less distinguished performances in the discography. The tone is downright unglamourous and the voice lacks flexibility. To make things worse, there is not a drop of imagination to coax one into giving a second try.

 

Arleen Augér’s performance is the exact opposite of Norman’s. One could rightly say that she is too light voiced for the pieces, but she disguises it beautifully. As she’s operating close to her limits and - more than that - trying to show that she is at ease, interpretation is not the strong point here, but she has lots of good taste and phrases with intelligence. The nice point about this performance is the way with which the Vienna Philharmonic was recorded. For the first time, the orchestra has pride of place in the Four Last Songs. It is particularly enlightening because of the extra richness of orchestral details. Previn is almost at the heart of it when atmosphere is concerned, but I would have liked a more firm understanding of structure and clearer phrasing.

 

Previn had previously recorded these songs in London, with Anneliese Rothenberger, a bit past her prime. Although her performance largely follows the Schwarzkopf-ian approach, there is a certain nervousness in her vocal production at this stage of her career that does not make one inclined to a second listening. Moreover, the recorded sound does not involve rich orchestral sounds. So if you really want to sample Previn's grand atmospherical and emotional conducting, you should really try the Telarc recording with the crystalline Arleen Augér.

 

I still do not know why Elisabeth Meyer-Topsoe recording was so well received by some reviewers. Clearly, her voice has the elements of the real thing - it is a big, solid voice, but a bit on the hard side and lacking all the breath support it needed. It has its moments of poor intonation. Worse than that - sometimes she is rather careless about her phrasing. From the interpretative side, it is not horrible. Sometimes, I feel that she wanted to do better than this, but does not have the control over her voice to do it. The orchestral playing and conducting are a bit tentative. It sounds like those pianists who wait for the singer to reach the point where he should be playing together with the singer and there is this "hole" in the phrasing. The recorded sound is natural and pleasing.

 

When she was going to retire, Gundula Janowitz was asked which was the soprano, according to her opinion, that would carry on the great Straussian tradition. Her answer was "Felicity Lott". When the criteria are sensitivity, musicianship and intelligence, Lott is always top grade. However, although her voice has the necessary brightness, it is a bit on the fragile sound. She is fearless enough to deal with the heavy demands on it, but, exactly as Augér, as she is operating close to her limits, you may feel that the vocal palette is a bit narrow. Anyway, she is in firmer voice than Augér and her phrasing is too exquisite to be neglected. Järvi is a sensitive conductor who knows how to deal with dynamics and orchestral colouring, but his orchestra is not in the level of most of his competition. Nevertheless, if you like horns, this is your recording. They are excellent and always create a great effect when they appear. I wish that Lott’s voice was recorded in a more natural perspective. Anyway, this is a nice performance. After listening to all these recordings in order to write this text, it was able to caught my attention in a special way, maybe because of Lott’s spontaneous and direct performance and Järvi’s beautiful orchestral climaxes.

 

I don’t know exactly what is wrong in Sinopoli’s performance. Somehow it had to be better. Maybe if there wasn’t such a strong competition, it would have been a good recording, but, as things stand, it is a bit subdued. The brushstrokes are really too soft and the impression doesn’t stay long in memory. Cheryl Studer is basically in good voice, since she sings it easily and in firm tone, but the voice is a bit on the hard and metallic side and, when she tries to scale down, it does sound flaccid. Interpretatively, she does not show any particular insight - it is cleanly done and that is it. The Staatskapelle Dresden plays it beautifully, but sometimes I wished that they could really PLAY it - it is too soft centered to my taste somehow. The recorded sound is excellent.

 

Barbara Hendricks’s attempt to sing the 4 last songs has more liabilities than assets. Her voice is far from pure here, sustained notes lack focus and sometimes she is a milimeter under the note. She seems to have a good idea of how one should sing these songs and she has some touching details, but the tone is far from pleasing in a general way. Moreover, her covering of vowels is sometimes exaggerated - creating weird effects. Wolfgang Sawallisch’s conducting is beautiful. It has a flowing natural pace and the Philadelphia Orchestra is in very good shape, but I think that the conductor was so bewitched by the lush string section that woodwind was a bit left aside.

 

Renée Fleming’s recording is a weird affair. I have the impression she said to her conductor before the performance "Let’s bet that I won’t vary my tone from the first note of the first song until the last note of the last song?". She lost, because she decided to offer SOME interpretation in "ist dies etwa der Tod?", fining down her tone to a vibrato-less note - an idea borrowed from Popp. I am sorry to say that Renée should have been less shy and copied the WHOLE of Popp’s performance! It would have been really better, for this recording is the most boring performance of Strauss’ exquisite songs. I haven not forgotten to say that she is in beautiful voice here. She is. It has this weird quality of getting out spotless of every trap in Strauss’ writing. She could be reading the newspaper while singing it and the tone is always round, full and bright. One could say that I wasn’t so ill-humoured about... Augér... who doesn’t offer lots of tone colouring either, but Augér makes lots of points through word-pointing and charming phrasing. Word-pointing is strange to Fleming’s singing here and, regarding her phrasing, sometimes I have the impression she is singing an unending series of half-notes. Eschenbach’s conducting is no help at all. It is so slow and homogeneous that it sounds like new age music. The Houston orchestra is not bad and the recording is quite nice. I could say that the sound engineers are the real artists here - soloist and conductor are fulfilling their richly paid tasks.

 

After Fleming’s phlegmatic performance, it is a pleasure to listen to Karita Mattila’s sensitive performance. Unlike Fleming, she is unfortunately not in her best shape. The tone lacks a bit focus, but it is never ugly in the ear. On the contrary, it is a flowing stream of warm and sensuous tone and she sings in a very passionate way, with some individual and exquisite details. It is most unfortunate that Abbado was in such a dispeptic manner in this concert. It seems as if someone had had the bad idea of imitating the Janowitz/Karajan, since it is again the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a rather shapeless performance. In the same way Janowitz couldn’t do alone the whole work, I’m afraid Mattila cannot either. The recorded sound could be more focused too.

 

It is funny that, in a promotional disc, given free in the Salzburg Festival, Abbado, with the more modest Gustav Mahler Jugend Orchester, was able to do everything he didn’t with the Berlin Philharmonic. Here, he offers a most sensitive and detailed account of this songs, with natural well judged tempi and pleasing recorded sound. He also has the luck of having a marvellous soloist in Melanie Diener, who not only is in creamy and heavenly voice, but also has a very good ear for Strauss melodies, since her phrasing is so caressing and sensitive. If "beauty" was the only criterion to judge a performance of these songs, I am afraid Diener would have no rivals. Unfortunately, this series was not released and I make a strongest appeal to the Salzburg Festival and the ORF to RELEASE it! This is definitely the best modern recording of these songs - I promise you’ll make money with it!

 

Charlotte Margiono's velvety soprano is taylor-made to this repertoire and her stylish and sensitive performance might surprise some skeptical CD-buyers. That said, compared to some of her most distinguished rivals in this repertoire, the last ounce of imagination necessary to single her out in memory might be lacking. Although Edo de Waart's general approach is stylish and sensitive, he lets sometimes proceedings sag in a way the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Holland is not able to sustain. In any case, this is one of the best among recent recordings of these songs.

 

It is most curious to compare Charlotte Margiono to Sharon Sweet in her recording with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. While Margiono's soprano is evenly produced and elegantly handled, Sharon Sweet's inspired account of these songs might be an acquired taste, considering this soprano's ungainly if resourceful voice. The London Symphony is at its best and Frühbeck de Burgos offers unpretentious and efficient conducting - kappellmeisterlich in the good sense of the word.

A part of Nightingale Classics's complete edition, Friedrich Haider's recording features Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in resplendent voice. Rarely were these songs sung so smoothly as in this recording, but the conductor's fast tempi often suggest impatience rather than impetus and one feels that the soloist is being rushed along. As a result, the interpretation as a whole sounds rather anonymous despite the talents involved. To make things worse, Pieczonka is almost claustrophobically closely recorded, what impares a good balance between singer and the orchestra. That is a pity, for the Philharmonique de Nice offers crystalline sounds. If you want to give it a chance, sample Im Abendrot, when the swift tempi and Pieczonka's directness eschew any sense of sentimentality.

 

Soile Isokoski and Marek Janowski’s performance released by Ondine changed a bit the state of matters in this discography. First of all, Janowski’s conducting gathers every little quality great Straussian conducting needs - it has the structural sense and clarity of Böhm, the sense of atmosphere and flexibility of Tennstedt plus great orchestral playing. His approach is different from del Mar’s exemplary performance, for example - because he concentrates on the "Lieder" aspect. He scores his points on spontaneity and intimacy and is particularly moving for that. It is Janowski’s philosophy to work in team with his Tonmeister and this shows here in every second - it has a perfect balance between soloist and orchestra, plus an almost supernatural clarity (enhanced by the perfect articulation in every section of his orchestra). All that without the artifficialities of many modern recordings. Thank God Janowski had a soloist as del Mar didn’t - Soile Isokoski, who, in this disc, is instantly promoted to the position of the leading Straussian singer of her generation. Let’s start with the voice. It has an uncanny similiarity with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s, but it has its touches of Ileana Cotrubas, with its shimmering delicacy and smoothness. However, she is technically superior to the former and richer in tone than the latter. From the interpretative point of view, she is unique. As much as Janowski, she avoids transforming it into big operatic singing, but sing them as she would sing a Schubert Lied, with naturalness of vocal production, directness and imaginative use of tone colouring - not to mention a warm-hearted and elegant approach throughtout the whole disc. Isokoski and Janowski are also wonderful in the other songs of the disc, all of them entirely in keeping with their unaffected, musicianly and poetic style.

 

Although Mark Elder's is a live recording from the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, it features crystalline recorded sound. The balance is too favourable to the soloist, but the orchestral sound is not recessed - and the Hallé Orchestra is led to an inspired non-sentimental forward-moving performance by the conductor. Anne Schwanewilms's overpoised jugendlich dramatisch soprano might seem to lack spontaneity in the first listening, but I have the impression her bright almost vibrato-free tonal quality and carefree approach to the vocal intricacies concocted by Strauss might procure her some fans. Moreover, her natural deliver of the German text is admirable.

Nina Stemme's studio recording with Antonio Pappano is probably the opposite of Janowski's Ondine release with Soile Isokoski. While the Finnish soprano and her conductor worked on detail, clarity and poise, Stemme features a plummy sensuous warm dramatic soprano that that rather goes for capital letters. The sheer size of her voice is an asset to this performance and cues the conductor to settle for a large-scale approach that undeniably fits late Romanticism, but one that does not reveal any special insight otherwise. Sensitively and elegantly as Stemme sings these songs, there is a sameness and lack of variety here that prevent her from being a reference in the discography. If you make a point on having a large dark voice, you would naturally go for Jessye Norman's expressive recording with Kurt Masur. Otherwise, if you just want an individual performer that goes beyond correctness, the discography has plenty to offer. The recorded sound is spacious and natural and the Royal Opera House Orchestra's strings soar beautifully in Pappano's grandiose if quite generalised interpretation.

Michaela Kaune's bright soprano has a pleasant girlishness about it which is quite refreshing. Her handling of the German text is sensitive and her phrasing is shapely enough. However, one cannot avoid the sensation that she is overparted in these songs; exposed high phrases sound rather tense and there is not much tone colouring up there, especially when softer dynamics are required. On her benefit, one must point out that she survives conductor Eiji Oue's slow tempi (especially in September) and keeps one's attention to the end of the last song. Although the recording favours the singer, one can still savour the NDR Radiphilharmonie's warm and pleasant sound. Even if the last ounce of clarity is still missing, it must be acknowledged that Oue rarely misses the right atmosphere for each song.

Michael Halász is entirely at home in late Romantic music and offers an outstandingly stylish and expressive performance of these songs. The sound of the Weimar Staatskapelle is so rich and crystalline and textures are so transparent and yet warm that one does not feel at all that his tempi are often quite slow. It is only a pity that he could not find a soloist up to his level. As recorded here, Ricarda Merbeth's creamy soprano generally sounds instable and ungainly and sustained notes are not always true in pitch. Her approach is also too operatic for the subtle moods portrayed in these poems and her efforts at tone-colouring self-defeating. I have to believe she was in poor voice when she recorded that.

Although Anja Harteros does not reach the short-list of truly memorable recordings in the discography, her performance is never less than very good. Her rich lyric soprano is not short of shading and her phrasing has the necessary poise and flexibility. She is also attentive to the text and responds to the imagery proposed by the poems. If she is not overwhelmed by the demands of Frühling, she does seem a bit out of sorts in the end of some long phrases and the purity of line required by Beim Schlafgehen is not entirely in her possibilities. Conductor Fabio Luisi also misses some important points - sometimes the structural sense is rather slack, mainly because clarity is not this recording's prime qualities. His approach is sometimes too extrovert for this music and the hallmark qualities associated to the Staatskapelle Dresden are not immediately recognisable here. The recorded sound has exemplary balance between soloist and orchestra.

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