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Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Vier Letzte Lieder (1949) [24.03]
Befreit, Op 39, #4 (1898) [5.56]
Muttertändel, Op 43, #2 (1899) [2.06]
Wiegenlied, Op 41, #1 (1899) [4.42]
Waldseligkeit, Op 49, #1 (1901) [3.28]
Cäcilie, Op 27, #2 (1894) [2.29]
Renée Fleming, soprano
Der Rosenkavalier, Op 59; Suite (1911) [25.21]
Houston Symphony Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
No information on recording location or date. [1996]
Notes in English, Deutsch, and Français. Texts and translations.
BMG RCA RED SEAL CLASSICS 82876 59408 2 [68.55]

[Previously released on this label as 90266 8539 2 on 1 December 1996]
Comparison Recordings, Four Last Songs and additional songs as noted:
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Szell (+Opp43#2;49#1;41#1) [AAD] EMI CDC 7 47276 2
Teresa Stich-Randall, Laszlo Simogny Westminster LP WST 17081
Jessye Norman, Kurt Masur (+Opp27#2;41#1) Philips 411 052-2
Kirsten Flagstad [ADD] various


Many years ago I was a member of an Alpinist club in California and we would spend weekends high in the Sierra Nevada mountains camped beside a glacial lake somewhere. The other backpackers used to kid me about bringing my cassette player with me on jaunts. One evening after our tin dinner plates were scrubbed with snow and my sleeping bag was set up I wandered secretly off by myself, set my player on a rock, turned the volume very low and listened to the Schwartzkopf/Szell recording of Abendrot as I watched the last bit of colour drain from the sunset sky. When the song was finished, I picked up my player, turned around, and there, sitting about on rocks, were all the other members of the club, their faces wet with tears. They never kidded me again.

These quite beautiful 8-year-old recordings by Renée Fleming have been discussed extensively and widely praised, however of all the versions listed above in this review, they are my least favourite. Fleming’s approach is operatic, as though they were interludes in Salome or Elektra, but her voice is not so large, varied, or controlled as Norman’s (or Flagstad’s), if the operatic approach is desired. My preferred versions are the second Schwarzkopf and the Stich-Randall, both of which have a quality of intimacy, also exquisite dramatic control, a variety of vocal timbres with which to respond to the quickly changing moods of the poems, with superb collaboration from the orchestral backup. Most especially, Schwarzkopf, Stich-Randall, and Norman are able to find moments of intimate sensuous delirium in these works which others do not. Norman also gains from outstanding collaboration with Masur and his orchestra. Eschenbach and the Houstoners play the notes of the accompaniment without any particular conviction.

Tragically, no satisfactory recording by Kirsten Flagstad is available of these works of which she gave the world premiere in London, with Furtwängler conducting, in 1950. Tapes made of the broadcast of that performance have not survived in listenable condition, and some other recordings she made, one with piano(!) accompaniment, are incomplete or do not find her in good voice. A Decca recording from 1953 is curiously unavailable and inaccessible; I’ve never been able to hear it. However, by all the evidence, those in the audience in 1950 heard these songs the best they’ve ever been done.

In the conclusion of Abendrot Strauss quotes the opening bars of the Kyrie from Schubert’s Mass in Eb, under the larks, just after the more frequently alluded to quotation from his own Death and Transfiguration. Strauss inserted quotations from Schubert and Mendelssohn in several of his later works. Is Metamorphosen really based on the Beethoven Eroica Funeral March, or on the Mendelssohn String Symphony in d minor? Or both?

While we are talking about musical quotations, the orchestral accompaniment to Cäcilie begins with the same chord as that for Abendrot, and there is at least one other phrase which is similar to the later song, not surprising since in the later song the composer is writing about walking with his life companion, to whom the earlier song was dedicated. Norman achieves lightness and sensuality whereas Fleming has a darker mezzo-quality to her voice at times, and seems to be more concerned with sonority than expression. Eschenbach’s orchestral accompaniment comes and goes, with little apparent attempt by the soloist or orchestra to work together, whereas Norman and Masur collaborate convincingly.

We should not be surprised if several phrases from Wiegenlied are reminiscent of Schubert’s Ave Maria, and this lovely song inspires outstanding work from all three performers. Schwartzkopf is intimate, Fleming consoling, Norman slightly more consoling — but this one is too close to draw a preference. Likewise with Muttertändelei — Schwarzkopf and Fleming both give us terrific performances of this delightful comic opera mini-scene. It is in Waldseligkeit that Fleming and Eschenbach show best what they can do, and I prefer their version over Schwarzkopf and Szell. Schwarzkopf by comparison is just a bit too extroverted, and Fleming best captures the sense of devotional mystery with good orchestral support.

The RCA disk includes texts and translations — good ones, I’m happy to say. This appears to be a continuing problem, possibly due to copyright wrangles. Some disks of Strauss songs have no texts at all, others German texts plus bad translations or no translations at all. One major label’s disk of these songs has a misprint in the German text which is then accurately mistranslated!

The Der Rosenkavalier Suite, a work I generally avoid, here receives the best performance and recording I’ve ever heard, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Paul Shoemaker

 



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