Sena Jurinac is one of those names that is always mentioned
with bated breath when Strauss singing is discussed; back in those days,
so the story goes, they really knew how to sing this music. Her glorious
Oktavian in the wonderful Erich Kleiber Rosenkavalier lends credence
to this view, and she was later equally at home as the Marschallin.
The other composer with whom she was particularly identified was Mozart
and there, too, she alternated between Cherubino and the Countess with
apparent ease. She was the Leonora of Klemperer’s Covent Garden Fidelio,
though for the recording her place was taken by Christa Ludwig.
This was before the days when everybody recorded everything,
usually several times over. Another of the Strauss "greats",
Lisa Della Casa, had recorded the Four Last Songs, then came the Schwarzkopf
version and that was evidently held to be enough. More recently a Jurinac
performance from 1951 given in Denmark under Fritz Busch came to light
and has been widely praised. But the prospect of hearing her at a more
mature stage and with more recent sound is clearly tempting (a 1960
performance conducted by Milan Horvat has also circulated).
Unfortunately there are problems. Firstly the sound.
I don’t know whether these are actual BBC tapes or whether none exist
and somebody’s off-the-air job has been pressed into service but it
certainly sounds like the latter. The orchestra is just an inchoate
mass and the voice, prone to distortion, hogs the picture. The frequency
range is very limited, just like old medium-wave radio sets used to
sound. Of course, this may all be the result of the Royal Albert Hall’s
then untamed acoustic.
Then there is Sargent. As Alan Blyth’s notes kindly
put it, he "was never a conductor to linger". He even adds
that these songs "benefit from his firm approach". Well, I
suppose if I were writing the booklet notes rather than reviewing the
disc, I should have felt obliged to say something similar. As it is
I prefer to call a spade a spade and say that Sargent barges through
the music with a crass insensitivity that apparently stems from a blissful
unawareness of what the songs are all about. He shaves about five minutes
off most other performances.
In spite of the odds there are some ravishing, soaring
phrases from Jurinac, but there are also moments where she sounds uneasy
at having to negotiate difficult phrases while in the grip of Sargent’s
tight tempi. A remarkable performance of this work was given in Rome
in 1969 by Gundula Janowitz and Sergiu Celibidache (it has circulated
in bootleg form, I believe). This was before the days when the Romanian
maestro’s tempi became impossibly languorous (he takes a little over
six minutes longer than Sargent, but that is only about a minute over
the norm) and he uncovers details in the score of which Sargent seems
only dimly aware. More important, Janowitz has all the time she needs
to soar up to her high notes and to float round all the difficult corners.
It may be true, as Blyth says, that these songs "have in recent
times received some pretty self-indulgent performances", and it
is known that Strauss himself took and encouraged a brisk, no-nonsense
view of his music generally. On the whole I am in favour of maintaining
these Straussian first principles (I much prefer the Kleiber Rosenkavalier
to the Karajan, for this reason), but I have the idea that a certain
slowing down of the tempi in the Four Last Songs over the years has
somehow opened them up and revealed their true meaning. But in any case,
Sargent was speedy even for his time; in 1959 in Turin a young firebrand
named Marilyn Horne, still singing as a soprano, performed the work
under the sympathetic Mario Rossi, an erstwhile Toscanini protégé
and never one to dawdle, but one who had learnt from the cradle that
singers need time to breathe; they took about five minutes longer than
Sargent. The RAI recording was better, too, reinforcing my conviction
that this BBC one is an off-the-air job.
The 1957 recording of Ludwig’s Lieder eines fahrenden
Gesellen is better still, with the voice clear and well-present.
The orchestra does sound a long way back, though, which makes it difficult
to judge Cluytens’s conducting. He is well remembered as a musician
with an ear for the sonorities of Debussy and Ravel and also as a fine
interpreter of certain of the less dramatic German/Austrian classics
(for example the Beethoven "Pastoral"). His official discography
contains no Mahler. Standing in
for an ailing Klemperer, he relishes
the gentler atmospheres but also brings much vitality to the third song,
as well as establishing a sympathetic rapport with the singer. What
seems to be lacking is the tangy biting edge which the true Mahler conductors
find. Still, Ludwig’s sumptuous tones can be enjoyed. At about this
time she recorded the cycle with the Philharmonia under Boult; though
she made later recordings of Kindertotenlieder with Karajan the
only subsequent recording of the present cycle I’ve been able to trace
is a live issue under Böhm. So one way or another it seems we are
destined to hear Ludwig’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen under
conductors not exactly famous for their Mahler, and I leave her admirers
to sort out the pros and cons of each.
By this time I was wondering if there really was much
justification for this CD. The first of the Rückert Lieder changed
my mind. This is exquisite singing, with Geoffrey Parson’s piano weaving
the most delicate web round the vocal line. Ich bin der Welt
is suitably restrained and inward-looking while Um Mitternacht reaches
great heights of eloquence.
This 1978 recital shows Ludwig still at the height
of her vocal powers, her warm generous tones enriching all three composers.
Ruhe, meine Seele, makes a fascinating comparison with the recent
version from Katarina Karnéus; on the one hand we have a young
singer revelling in her first vocal glory, on the other we have the
conviction of years of experience. I’m glad to have them both.
The Brahms pieces, encores I imagine, conclude in warm
and communicative style – she even raises a laugh at the end of Ständchen,
quite an achievement with a non-German audience.
All the same, this is a patchy disc, not one for the
non-specialist. Just to make things worse texts and translations are
not included. A note says they can be found at www.imgartists.com.
I tried. I went to the BBC Legends section and it gave me a list of
artists I could search for. Neither Jurinac nor Ludwig was among them.
So I logged out none the wiser. A vast and continually expanding selection
of lieder and other vocal music texts with (usually) translations can
be found at www.recmusic.org/lieder/.
When let down by your CD booklet, try there.