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Richard Strauss (1864-1949): Four Last Songs
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Shirley Bassey, Soprano,
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra,
Conductor Owain Arwel Hughes
BBC Wales, Cardiff: October 27th 1955
Shirley Bassey Society SB CD 277 043 [48' 52"]
Limited Edition

The premier of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs was given in May 1950 by Kirsten Flagstad and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Furtwängler in the Royal Albert Hall. What has not been known until recently is that the second UK performance was given in Cardiff in 1955 by the young and unknown Shirley Bassey with Owain Arwel Hughes conducting the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

In early 1957 her debut single The Banana Boat Song reached the top 10. It was followed by Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and the number one As I Love You – but few knew that Bassey had recorded Strauss and Mahler lieder before she began her pop career.

It was at this recording session of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn that she was discovered by bandleader Jack Hylton, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Bassey started her first and only classical recording session with Strauss’s Four Last Songs. In Frühling Bassey’s impassioned and powerful voice had total control and complemented the sensitive playing of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra perfectly. In September she assumed a vulnerable fragility, her fragrant voice seeming subdued as if in mourning, heightened by the silver toned violin solo of Clio Gould. Beim Schlafengehen was by far the most poignantly sung, with her voice soaring effortlessly, accompanied by a perfectly pitched mellow horn solo. For Im Abendrot Bassey took on a tranquil, gentle radiance as if she were singing from afar. Unfortunately, the closing orchestral passages were spoilt with the woodwind being badly out of sync with Bassey’s floating phrases.

Gustav Mahler’s Songs from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ (1892-99) concluded this closed studio session. Bassey adopted a lush and silvery timbre for these naïve folk songs, bringing a simple, direct, child-like characterisation that many other singers either over-do or miss entirely. Bassey’s seductiveness and charm brought the right degree of lilting grace to Rheinlegendchen as did the reduced BBC Welsh SO. Bassey was at her best in Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen, floating her phrases with a simple yet ravishing gracefulness, against a tapestry of serene strings. The solemn solo trumpet entries ideally matched her mellow tones.

The Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, a motif from Mahler’s Second Symphony, had some wonderfully pointed woodwind playing, matching the gusto and bravura of Bassey’s pointed humour, which was even more projected in the closing Lob des hohen Verstandes with her cuckoo and ass characterisations echoing those coming from the brass and woodwind, the clarinets in particular being wonderfully incisive.

After hearing this private society disc – available to the public for the first time one wonders why Miss Bassey never returned to the classical repertoire; she would have made a great Isolde or Sieglinde or an Elektra. Her svelte, seductive figure would also have made her a memorable Salome.

The 1955 mono studio recording is still of excellent quality, with a perfect balance between artiste and orchestra.

Alex Russell


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