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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (1858) [17:13]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung Op. 24 (1888) [25:41]
Four Last Songs (1947): Fruhling [3:09]; September [4:36]; Beim Schlafengehen [4:44]; Im Abendrot [7:41]
Christine Brewer(soprano)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
rec. 1-2 April 2006, Woodruff Arts Centre, Atlanta, Georgia
TELARC CD-80661 [63:29]


While not a die-hard fan of the greater excesses of high-romantic repertoire, I have enjoyed this disc immensely. Donald Runnicles is building quite a discography of mainstream work for Telarc, and the results prove that the triangular relationship between him, the Atlanta Symphony and this fine record label works just fine, thank you very much. What I like about all concerned here is the depth of expression, managed without histrionics or saddlebagged with sentimentality.

The recording begins with Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Wagner combined these two pieces as a concert work which was first performed in 1863, two years before the complete opera received its premiere. Christine Brewer, a recognised Wagnerian soprano having sung the complete Isolde in concert performances at the Edinburgh International Festival with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, is as powerful and operatic as one might expect. Her voice has a deep, rich quality which adds colour and visceral muscularity to a silvery top, giving the whole an attractive durability. I admire her restraint in much of the music, saving up for the true climaxes and never going ‘over the top’: this is Wagner to savour and revisit, often.

Richard Strauss wrote Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) in 1888, when he was a 25-year-old assistant conductor of the court opera at Weimar. The work is a tone poem depicting the final hours of a dying man. Strauss himself conducted the premiere in 1890, and for many years it was his most popular work among concertgoers, having, like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a clear and unambiguous programme. Strauss’s musical depictions of illness and death were so vivid that many erroneously believed that the composer must have been deathly ill when he wrote it. The Atlanta orchestra create a grand spectacle with this work, and hi-fi buffs can enjoy magnificent swings of dynamic, rumbling bass brass and winds, and sometimes startling timps. Runnicles has the perfect ear for detail, always ensuring that inner voices are clear even when the orchestra is in full cry.

In 1947, in his eighties and probably contemplating his own death, Strauss set an orchestral song to Im Abendrot (At Sunset), a poem reflecting on final rest written by Joseph von Eichendorff. Soon after, Strauss identified four poems of a similar nature by Hermann Hesse and began a cycle of four songs. He lived long enough to complete only three of these, but the set as it stands seems inseparable, even though they amount to something less than a ‘cycle’ as such. Again, Christine Brewer’s voice draws you in, avoiding any of the foibles which singer colleagues of mine have so colourfully described to me in the past. The unavoidable comparison is that of Jessye Norman, recorded in 1982 with Kurt Masur in Leipzig and still one of Philips’ evergreen titles. For many, this will be unequalled, and I suspect that this new recording will do little to dissuade Norman fans that hers is the best. Personally I find little to choose between each singer’s approach to these works, both being equally sensitive to the non-operatic nature of the orchestral song. It will depend very much on your taste in vocal colour, and it just so happens that I find Brewer’s sound more appealing, most notably in the climax moments, where Norman’s voice has a certain hardness which has turned me off in the past. In any case, her diction is excellent, her vibrato expressive and most certainly not excessive, her interpretations of the texts moving and poignant. In possession of this alternative I have found myself re-experiencing these glowingly expressive works with refreshed and grateful ears.

With a recording of well-nigh demonstration quality and singing to match, this is an irresistible ‘must-have’ for connoisseurs of these fine works. Having them all together on one disc is something of a desert-island luxury, and I shall treasure this addition to my library for years to come.

Dominy Clements






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