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Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), Op. posth., TrV 296 (1948) [22:54]
1. Frühling (Hesse) [3:43]
2. September (Hesse) [5:10]
3. Beim Schlafengehen (Hesse) [5:58]
4. Im Abendrot (Eichendorff) [8:04]
Brentano-Lieder, Op. 68, TrV 235 (1918, orch. 1933 (10) and 1940) [28:40]
5. An die Nacht [3:20]
6. Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden [3:36]
7. Säusle, liebe Myrte! [5:35]
8. Als mir dein Lied erklang [4:08]
9. Amor! [3:39]
10. Lied der Frauen [8:22]
Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60, TrV 228a (excerpts) (1912) [8:47]
11. The Opera: Overture [3:16]
12. The Opera: Dance Scene [5:30]
Ricarda Merbeth (soprano) (1-10)
Weimar Staatskapelle/Michael Halász
rec. 28-30 August 2006, Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany.  DDD
NAXOS 8.570283 [60:21]

Experience Classicsonline

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.

The 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 Furtwängler.

Ricarda 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 performance.

Amongst 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.

My 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).

I 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).

Another 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.

I 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, Dehmel).

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 conclusion.

To 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.

Throughout 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 the sung texts and translations available on their website.

The recorded sound from the Weimarhalle is produced to a decent standard as are the booklet notes by Keith Anderson.

Soprano 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.

Michael Cookson 

See also Review by Göran Forsling February RECORDING OF THE MONTH


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