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Georgina von Benza website

Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949):
Four Last Songs, op. posth.: (Frühling [4.10]; September [4.21]; Beim Schlafengehen [5.31], Im Abendrot [7.42])
Zueignung, op 10, no 1 [2.01]
Cäcilie, op 27, no 2 [2.27]
Morgen, op 27, no 1 [3.35]
Liebeshymnus, op 32, no 3 [2.21]
Hymne an die Liebe, op 71 [8.08]
Don Juan, symphonic poem, op 20 [19.40]
Georgina von Benza (soprano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken/Marco de Prosperis
Rec. 17-22 February 2003. DDD
TADE CD 002 [60:10]

You have to give them credit for guts and trying at least. For the second time this month I have the pairing of von Benza and de Prosperis taking on much-recorded mainstream repertoire. In fact, by reading the Verdi arias review you could probably shortcut this one and have a fair idea of what to expect. However, this time there is a significant difference in the format: the inclusion of a major orchestral work.

The Four Last Songs can never be given a single definitive performance. There’s so much packed into it that any combination of singer, inflection of text, orchestra and conductor will tell you something different from the next one. And maybe, if you’re lucky, something new about it too. But inevitably, one develops a liking for a particular reading or readings over others. For review purposes I find Schwarzkopf and Szell (EMI 5 66908 2) a safe comparison, though after a while Dame Elizabeth’s self-conscious vocal production tires and you want something more direct.

To an extent that’s what you get here. The last of the four songs shows the rendition at its best. Von Benza’s diction is as clear as it gets, though sometimes, as in the earlier songs, she produces generalised vowel sounds that make it hard to follow her even with the text. Her tone for the most part is acceptable, though she’s a little cautious in her singing, which begs the question how well she knows the music or how often she’s sung it. And what about having the sound placed more forward in the mouth, so it can really be heard? Occasionally she sounds placed in a different acoustic from the orchestra too. All of these points cannot be raised against Schwarzkopf. As with the Verdi, it’s the details that let it down.

The orchestra, though not as lusciously recorded as Szell’s Berlin RSO, do turn in atmospheric performances that feature nicely phrased violin solos (Im Abendrot) and brass (Frühling).

In the orchestral songs that follow, the orchestra’s contribution is decisive throughout Hymne an die Liebe, the least known of the group presented here. There, at last, is some real passion in the conducting by de Prosperis, as he underlines textual references to ‘the wide sea’ and lust-filled infinity. Zueignung is notable for using Strauss’ own orchestration, rather than that of Robert Heger, as on Schwarzkopf’s recording.

Would that the account of Don Juan were notable in any way. De Prosperis takes a somewhat spacious view, emphasising pauses to the point where they become breaks in the music rather than integral to the overall structure. The playing is decent, though not on a par with that achieved by the Dresden Staatskapelle under Kempe or, more recently, the Hallé under Mark Elder (review). Both alternative versions carry greater purpose and inner awareness of structure, offering a more rewarding experience as a result.

Were I putting this release together, I’d be tempted to change the track ordering. Don Juan, with its ebullient opening makes for a natural starter; and the Four Last Songs naturally go, well, last. This would also have conveyed the progression from youth to death ... or am I the only one that sees it that way…?

Tade have yet to arrive at consistency in their booklet presentation – we have texts and translations this time, with more notes from de Prosperis. Looking at the company website, they have two signed artists - no prizes for guessing who. Might Tade also be run by them? It would seem to make sense. Given recording industry economics these days it’s hard to think of another scenario that adds up. Anyhow, whatever the situation, they have a Puccini album ‘in the can’ awaiting release. I wonder how long they might keep this formula up, and make money from it when all’s said and done. Some truly amazing artistic results would help, but sadly I don’t hold out much hope of their materialisation.

Evan Dickerson



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