To record Richard Strauss orchestral songs is a tall order for
any soprano and Ricarda Merbeth is brave enough to step up to
the challenge. The German-born singer is no stranger to the work
of her fellow countryman Richard Strauss. In 2004 she sang the
leading role in the opera Daphne under Semyon Bychkov for
the Vienna State Opera; in 2006 she was the Marschallin in Der
Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera and later in the year
sang the Empress in Frau ohne Schatten at the Théâtre du
Capitole in Toulouse.
feature work here is the posthumously published set of Four
Last Songs. The main stumbling block here for Merbeth
is that these Strauss masterworks have been recorded by many
of the world’s greatest sopranos and the competition in the
catalogues is particularly intense.
The Four Last Songs are often classed as amongst the
most haunting and moving music that has ever been composed.
To me this is autumnal music, suffused with nostalgia, the
colours of sunset and the experience of a long, productive
and controversial life. The settings of Hesse (the first three
songs) and Eichendorff (the fourth song)
contemplate Spring (Frühling);
September; Going to sleep (Beim Schlafengehen)
and In twilight (Im Abendrot). Strauss had the benefit of the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten
Flagstad performing at the 1950 premiere at London’s Royal
Albert Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Wilhelm
Merbeth has a warm and sturdy voice, although as heard in
the opening song Frühling, when she exerts pressure
her vibrato becomes conspicuous and causes a degree of unsteadiness.
I enjoyed her fine rendition of the second song September
which is movingly sung together with an impressive horn solo.
The third song Beim Schlafengehen is perhaps her finest
performance of the set, aptly displaying a fine articulation.
The orchestral accompaniment is of a high quality and the
violin solo is played with immediacy and sensitivity. In Im
Abendrot, the last and longest of the Four Last Songs,
Merbeth demonstrates considerable craft in a highly affecting
the wealth of versions of the Four
Last Songs probably the best known are those from
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/EMI, Jessye Norman/Philips, Cheryl Studer/Deutsche
Grammophon, Soile Isokoski/Ondine,
Lisa della Casa/Decca, Felicity Lott/Chandos, Renée Fleming/RCA
Victor, Kirsten Flagstad/Testament, Lucia Popp/EMI, Anna Tomowa-Sintow/Deutsche
Grammophon and Kiri Te Kanawa on Sony.
premier Four Last Songs recommendation is the landmark
recording performed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. For this stunning
version Schwarzkopf, then in her fifties, demonstrates a tremendous
range of interpretative insight with a voice of heavenly beauty.
Accompanied by the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under
George Szell this truly classic recording from Berlin in 1965
is on a superb digitally remastered disc of Great Recordings
of the Century EMI Classics 5 66908 2 (c/w Strauss 12
orchestral songs to words by Burger, Dehmel, Bierbaum).
highly value the ravishing award-winning 1982 Leipzig version
performed by Jessye Norman with Kurt Masur conducting the
Leipzig Gewandhaus. Norman’s interpretation of rich and passionate
tones can melt the stoniest of hearts. My recording is on
Philips 411 052-2 (c/w Strauss 6 orchestral songs to words
by Hart, Mackay, Falke).
impressive version of the Four Last Songs that I found
especially captivating is from the creamy-textured and expressive
Cheryl Studer accompanied by the Dresden Staatskapelle under
Giuseppe Sinopoli. Studer made the recording in Dresden in
1993 for Deutsche Grammophon 439 865-2.
The valuable coupling is Studer’s splendid performance of
the Wagner Wesendonck Lieder and the Vorspiel
and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
accord with the substantial group of admirers who old the
Four Last Songs from the assured Soile Isokoski in
high esteem. Isokoski conveys a firm and silvery timbre. The
recording was made in 2001 at Berlin with Marek Janowski and
the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin on Ondine ODE 982-2
(c/w Strauss 11 orchestral songs to words by Klopstock, Brentano,
By comparison the set of Six Brentano-Lieder Op.
68 has been neglected in the recording studios. They date
from after the Great War in 1918 and are to poems by Clemens
Brentano. The first song Strauss orchestrated was Lied
der Frauen in 1933 and the remaining five were orchestrated
later in 1940.
In the opening song, An die Nacht, Merbeth displays
her highest registers to agreeable effect. The songs Ich
wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden and Säusle, liebe Myrte!
are given powerful, if at times, rather unsteady performances.
With Als mir dein Lied erklang she is a passionate
and fragrant interpreter. Although there is some shakiness
the soprano has little problem rapidly ascending to the high
notes. The song Amor! is a testing proposition for
any singer but Merbeth faces this with an impressive boldness,
although she is not entirely at her most comfortable. The
extended final song of the set, Lied der Frauen again
provides considerable challenges that are clearly within this
singer’s compass. Despite some lack of vocal security she
is fresh and expressive providing a splendidly heart-rending
fill up the disc there are two orchestral excerpts from Ariadne
auf Naxos. The first orchestral work is the Overture
followed by the Dance Scene in which the Weimar Staatskapelle
under Michael Halász provide appealingly musical performances.
both cycles of the Four Last
Songs and the Brentano-Lieder, and the Ariadne
auf Naxos excerpts Halász conducts stylish
performances that provide excellent support for the enthusiastic
soloist. For my taste an additional degree of orchestral opulence
would have provided a more authentic Straussian sound.
The Naxos label has adopted the annoying practice here of only making
texts and translations available on their website.
recorded sound from the Weimarhalle is produced to a decent
standard as are the booklet notes by Keith Anderson.
Ricarda Merbeth performs an enjoyable recital. However, I
feel there is nothing outstanding on this issue to get too
excited about. The competition for excellent recordings of
the Four Last Songs remains astonishingly fierce.
by Göran Forsling February RECORDING
OF THE MONTH