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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder* [20’44"]; Capriccio: Closing Scene* [20’09"]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Schéhérazade** [15’04"]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Le nozze di Figaro: "Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro" *** [3’36"]; "E Susanna non vien! – Dove sono i bei momenti*** [6’43"]
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano)
*Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Antal Dorati
**BBC Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
***Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir John Pritchard
Recorded: *Royal Festival Hall, London, 3 October 1976; **Royal Albert Hall, London, 3 August 1971; *** Royal Albert Hall, London, 20 August 1960 ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4153-2 [67’46"]


This delightful disc includes live performances by the great Swedish soprano of music by two composers with whose music she was strongly identified throughout her distinguished career. There is also an opportunity to hear her in French music, a genre in which I for one had not often heard her sing.

Her performance of Ravel’s song cycle is a fine one, sung in generally excellent French. She brings passion and a wide emotional and tonal range to ‘Asie’. She colours the words, using the text most effectively, as when she injects real bite to the line "Je voudrais voir des assassins souriant" (track 6, 5’47") ‘La Flûte enchantée’, besides featuring more superb vocal artistry, is also distinguished by some wonderful flute playing by the BBCSO’s principal flautist. Finally, ‘L’Indifférent’ is subtly etched by all concerned, Söderström beautifully conveying the tristesse of the setting. I should say that the performance benefits hugely from the typically fastidious care with which Boulez handles both the exquisite details and the broader canvas of Ravel’s orchestral score.

The Ravel was given at a Henry Wood Promenade concert. So too were the earliest items on the CD, namely the Countess Almaviva’s two arias from Figaro. This was a role that Söderström often sang to great acclaim at Glyndebourne and, indeed, elsewhere. In his liner note Alan Blyth describes these arias as being sung in "immaculately shaped Mozart Style." I agree entirely. Söderström sings both of them with aristocratic poise, feminine dignity and a fine dramatic conviction. As with everything else here she consistently displays a wonderful sense of line. She is well supported by Sir John Pritchard, with whom she frequently collaborated at Glyndebourne.

There’s a strong Glyndebourne link with another of the items included here. Söderström was an adored exponent there of the role of the "other" Countess, namely the heroine of Strauss’s Capriccio. Here, in the closing monologue we have a wonderful souvenir of her portrayal of Countess Madeleine. The extract begins with the Moonlight Music that prefaces the monologue. There is some distinguished playing here from the RPO under Antal Dorati, a fine Strauss conductor who was perhaps unfairly overshadowed in this respect by the likes of Karajan and Kempe. The RPO’s principal horn is on particularly fine form. Söderström conveys the vulnerability and sensuousness of Countess Madeleine to perfection. She sings with glorious expressiveness, once again using the words superbly, and her tone is consistently expansive and lustrous. This is Strauss singing of great distinction.

I’ve left the best till last, though in fact the performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs opens the disc. I’ve lost count of the number of versions in my CD collection of Strauss’s final expression of love for the soprano voice. Suffice it to say that this performance ranks with the very best of them. Söderström soars ecstatically, rapturously in ‘Frühling’ while the vocal melismas in ‘September’ are gloriously and effortlessly done. At the end of this song the wonderful horn-led epilogue is raptly played, typifying the distinguished support from Dorati and his orchestra. My personal favourite of the songs, ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ receives a deeply satisfying reading. A lovely, tender violin solo prefaces the unforgettable phrase "Und die Seele, unbewacht", which is ardently and gloriously delivered as, indeed, is the whole of the final stanza. Finally, there’s a tremendously atmospheric and distinguished performance of ‘Im Abendrot’ to close a truly memorable reading of these marvellous songs. No wonder the audience cheered.

This is a treasurable disc, which vividly recalls one of the greatest soprano voices of the second half of the last century. The recorded sound is very good in the Strauss items (these are in stereo) and perfectly acceptable in the (mono) Ravel and Mozart. The one blot on this release is the continuation of BBC Legend’s reprehensible policy of not providing texts and translations. (They are available on the IMG website but that’s an inadequate substitute.) However, set beside singing and interpretation of such distinction and vitality that’s a small complaint. This is a disc which has given me the utmost pleasure from start to finish and which ought to be in the collection of every aficionado of great singing. This is certainly going to be one of my Recordings of the Year and I hope that everyone else who buys it enjoys it as much as I did.

Recommended with the greatest possible enthusiasm.

John Quinn

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