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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder
Sena Jurinac (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Malcolm Sargent
Recorded 11th September 1961, Royal Albert Hall, London
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra/André Cluytens
Recorded 2nd December 1957, Royal Festival Hall, London
Rückert Lieder: Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Um Mitternacht
R. STRAUSS

Du meines Herzens Kröneleien, op. 21/2, Ruhe, meine Seele, op. 27/1, Zueignung, op. 10/1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Wiegenlied, op. 49/4, Ständchen, op. 106/1
Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano)
Geoffrey Parsons (pianoforte)
Recorded 15th July 1978, Wigmore Hall, London
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4107-2 [66’ 47"]

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.

Christopher Howell


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