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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Four Last Songs (1949) (Frühling [5:10]; September [4:16]; Beim Schlafengehen [2:41]; Im Abendrot [7:39])
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tristan und Isolde (1865): Prelude [10:49]; Mild und leise wie er lächelt (Liebestod – Act III) [6:33]
Götterdämmerung (1876): Siegfried’s Rhine Journey (Prologue) [11:00]; Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort ... (Act III) [17:55]
Kirsten Flagstad (sop)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Wilhelm Furtwängler
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 May 1950. ADD
TESTAMENT SBT1410 [66:53]


On 22 May 1950 legendary Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad gave the world premiere of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs in London's Royal Albert Hall. Strauss entrusted the premiere to Flagstad and a "first class conductor and ensemble", possibly a snub to Flagstad's fine piano accompanist Edwin McArthur whose forays into orchestral conducting for Flagstad are best overlooked. Instead Flagstad insisted upon her friend Wilhelm Furtwängler and together they presented a memorable concert of the songs and extracts from Wagner operas.

This Four Last Songs has long been available on various labels but sidelined due to the poor quality of the shellac recording. Testament's booklet says the rest of the concert presented here was unearthed recently. However all the items on this CD have been available for some time in an archive to which there is public access (see Neither the CD nor the archive contain the Meistersinger Prelude and Siegfried Forest Murmurs from the same concert; these must be presumed lost.

We are fortunate that this fascinating world premiere of the Four Last Songs is preserved but it could never be a first choice. Testament claim the sound is greatly improved on previous incarnations but it is still hampered by 'frying fish and chips' crackle, swish and buzz. The glorious orchestral sunrays opening Im Abendrot are disappointingly opaque, most of Beim Schlafengehenn is especially subfusc, and the final pages are marred by insistent swish.

Another minus is that Flagstad transposes down key notes in Frühling, which proved too much for her. Indeed she never risked Frühling again.

Putting these caveats aside Flagstad's generous tone, sovereign command of line and unfussy diction are moving. Furtwängler too does not confuse overt sentiment with profundity. His conducting is swift and lyrical, unfolding toward a clear-eyed dénouement in Im Abendrot, the final notes not unduly elongated but nobly radiant. This is a natural and majestic reading in which conductor and soloist are in perfect accord.

And whilst the sound is poor a bonus is that the orchestral image is not too backward, unlike the first studio recording by Della Casa. Here we have Strauss's great cycle for voice and orchestra with all voices interacting and balanced. In this respect I prefer such simplistic 'historic' recordings to noticeably multi-miked and twiddled BBC broadcasts today!

Testament does not list sources for these recordings. It would interesting to know as the Wagner excerpts are generally fuller and with far less noise, albeit prone to some tonal shifts - due to shellac side changes? - particularly in the Rhine Journey.

Furtwängler is one of the greatest Wagner conductors on record. His ability to generate extraordinary crescendos, singing line and dramatic intuition are rarely matched. Here we have a splendid example of this in Siegfried's Rhine Journey, opening with the blackest colours towards a shining crescendo, reached through rubato bringing palpable tension. The rhythmic energy as Siegfried journeys down the Rhine, always kept within singing phrasing, will have you dancing about the room. This is an orchestral performance that almost reaches the heights of Furtwängler's Good Friday Music (live, Egypt 1951), Funeral March and Meistersinger Prelude (both live, Berlin 1949).

Furtwängler and Flagstad's live 1937 Covent Garden (Music & Arts) Immolation Scene is compromised by constricted dynamic range and Flagstad's detached singing. In 1948 (EMI) Walter Legge placed Flagstad too close to the microphone and their 1952 remake correcting this suffers from hazy orchestral sound, especially at the bass end. The live 1950 RAI Act III Götterdämmerung is in awful sound with compression. Worse, Italian radio engineers recording the complete 1950 La Scala Ring produced an anti-Furtwängler soundscape with tinny bass and forward violins.

This Immolation scene is the fusion of sound and artistry that admirers of this partnership have long prayed for. Almost everything comes together. Roaring timps and exciting rubato as Flagstad soars to summon Loge to destroy Walhalla (track 8, 11:12) are the stuff of legend as is Furtwängler's accelerating rhythmic attack, almost frenzied, in the resulting orchestral cataclysm. Furtwängler's bedrock basses and cellos are palpable. Unlike the Four Last Songs, the final bars are not interrupted by harsh shellac noise so the glowing peroration registers clearly.

Legend has it that during the 1958 Decca Rheingold sessions members of the VPO turned around when Flagstad started singing. They were amazed at the vocal quality of the 62 year-old soprano. Similarly, if you hear a loud 'clunk' at the start of the Immolation scene it will be your jaw hitting the floor. Here Flagstad sounds in her prime, not a singer who may have retired by 1950 if the war had not wrecked her savings.

Flagstad's shining tone links back to the 1937 Covent Garden excerpts although here she is much more engaged with an added streak of Lear-like depth. The natural balance also adds a certain vulnerability to this Brünnhilde. Indeed Flagstad is almost covered by the brass at 2:05. Yet Flagstad’s command to the Gibichungs and summoning of Loge ring out with splendid force and those top Cs are resolutely nailed. Flagstad’s "Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!" is movingly hushed and inward, beautifully blended with the orchestra. Following the release of the Testament Götterdämmerung some critics claimed Astrid Varnay is the greatest Brünnhilde on record. Well they need to hear this!

This Immolation Scene absolutely joins my favourites: Traubel/NBCSO/Toscanini (live 1940, Guild Historical), Hunter/Sadlers Wells/Goodall (studio 1972, Chandos), Christa Ludwig/NDRSO/Knappertsbusch (live 1963, Tahra) and Varnay/Bayreuth Festival Orchetra/Knappertsbusch (live 1951, Testament).

The Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod are also Furtwängler’s best on record. The natural balance means that Isolde is really threatened by Wagner's rising waves. This arguably makes more dramatic sense than countless recordings that mike the voice forward as the Irish sorceress should seem almost overwhelmed as she approaches death and/or transfiguration. As in the Götterdämmerung excerpts Furtwängler's mastery of dramatic immersion and tension is combined with the impression the orchestra is singing alongside the soloist. The three timpani blows of fate strike with elemental force under Furtwängler as the music surges towards the ‘world’s breath’ apex. Here the listener can almost see thunder rolling across the skies with overwhelming power. What an amazing conductor!

The Testament booklet contains a background essay on the artists and performance by Mike Ashman and an insightful commentary on the performance by critic Dr Michael Tanner. Members of the Philharmonia at the time of the recording are listed so we can see who are most probably responsible for superlative playing. No texts are provided.

The Strauss is free from the distant audience noise which in no way undermines the Wagner. Still the Testament booklet is adamant that this is the premiere of the Four Last Songs, not the dress rehearsal. Applause is cut out.

Felicity Lott (Chandos) and Soile Isokoski (Ondine) remain top recommendations for the Four Last Songs. The unfair sound in the Strauss means that sadly it has to be recommended with caution. However Furtwängler and Flagstad's inspired Wagner excerpts are complemented by a revealing broadcast recording. The pit feeling in my stomach after this CD finished told me I'd heard something very special indeed.

David Harbin


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