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
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.