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alternatively Crotchet  

Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), Op. posth., TrV 296 (1948)[22:54]
1. Frühling [3:43]
2. September [5:10]
3. Beim Schlafengehen [5:58]
4. Im Abendrot [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. Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany, 28-30 August 2006
NAXOS 8.570283 [60:21]

Extract An die nacht

Naxos has been doing well with Richard Strauss lately. There have been some impressive orchestral discs and just months ago I consulted my dictionary for suitable superlatives concerning Hedwig Fassbender’s superb Lieder disc "Songs of Love and Death" (review). Hers is a large, dramatic voice - she has recorded Isolde! - and here comes another singer with resources to take on Salome or even Elektra. Ricarda Merbeth’s biography mentions the Countess (Le nozze di Figaro) and Donna Anna, Daphne and the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, a role she is singing in Vienna in April but unfortunately the day after I have left, but also Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) and the Empress (Die Frau ohne Schatten).

Judging from the present disc she certainly has the measure of all these heavy-weights. It is a vibrant - some would probably say too vibrant at places - and grand voice, not always absolutely steady but expressive and with impressive ability to grow and soar above the orchestra. Not exactly the qualities one first and foremost expects from someone who is singing Vier letzte Lieder, some readers might say. This is true but it is also true that the first performer of these songs was the mightiest of all dramatic sopranos, Kirsten Flagstad, and in later years Jessye Norman and, especially, Nina Stemme (review) have both shown that there are gains with a more dramatic approach. She chooses measured tempos straight through, as befits a heavier voice – even though the constantly slowest version among my baker’s dozen of recordings is by the lightest and most lyrical of all, namely Lucia Popp. The grandezza of Ms Merbeth’s voice doesn’t exclude sensitivity; quite the opposite. She can scale down the voice to chamber music proportions without losing in quality and her phrasing is invariably musical and attentive to nuance. What I miss is a clearer delivery of the text. Even with headphones I had difficulty catching the words. That might be the price one has to pay for such a grand reading but with Stemme this was never a problem. She also conveyed more of the resignation, or rather the acceptance of the unavoidable, that permeates especially the last song, Im Abendrot. Merbeth is less inward, more defiant. And there is more than one valid reading of this music. Going to the score gives no help: the orchestral parts are littered with dynamic instructions; the voice part has none.

While Vier letzte Lieder are frequently heard and recorded the six Brentano-Lieder are relative rarities. Originally conceived thirty years before Vier letzte, according to Keith Anderson’s liner-notes with Elisabeth Schumann’s voice in mind, they were not orchestrated until much later. Even though the six songs are all settings of poems by Clemens Brentano they are not strictly a song-cycle and I can’t remember a recording of all six before. Individually I have four of them in other recordings. Heather Harper recorded No. 1 An die Nacht for EMI, Soile Isokoski includes No. 2 Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden, No. 3 Säusle, liebe Myrte!, and No. 4 Als mir dein Lied erklang in a Strauss recital on Ondine and Barbara Hendricks sings No. 2 and 3 on a recently reissued EMI recording on ArkivCD. The last two, Amor! and Lied der Frauen, were new to me and they are possibly the most remarkable of them all.

An die Nacht is in all respects a great song, worthy to set beside the Vier letzte Lieder and the orchestration has similarities too. [Extract] Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein has echoes of Ariadne auf Naxos, with which Strauss had been working just a couple of years earlier. There are even some flourishes of Zerbinetta-like coloratura. Säusle, liebe Myrte! is grandly romantic and Als mir dein Lied erklang has an impassioned tone. As in Vier letzte Lieder Merbeth prefers measured tempos and is in several cases considerably slower than my comparisons. This is not unbecoming, however, and her wholehearted approach is compelling. She also lightens her voice for these mainly brighter songs.

Amor! is less of a song, more a virtuoso aria that is second cousin to Zerbinetta. It is filled with quite intricate coloratura and it is indeed a marvel to hear this grand voice negotiating these stratospheric embellishments with superior agility and lightness. Lied der Frauen wenn die Männer im Kriege sind, as the full title reads, is even less of a song. This is a long dramatic scene with an expressionist orchestral backing in the Salome or Elektra mould. Thundering timpani, glaring brass, tumultuous eruptions and a voice part that ranges from the deepest contralto notes to (almost) The Queen of the Night’s upper region. This is fascinating music, rarely heard, possibly due to the superhuman vocal requirements, but Ricarda Merbeth has the full measure of the piece and this alone is worth the modest price of the disc. That Richard Strauss could have had Elisabeth Schumann in mind when he wrote this – even in the original version with only piano accompaniment, is beyond my comprehension.

The ‘fillers’ are, suitably enough, two orchestral excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos. In the overture Michael Halász draws fine romantic playing from the orchestra with silken string tone and fine wind solos. The dance scene is spirited and light-hearted, luxuriously played. All through the preceding vocal numbers the Weimar Staatskapelle play splendidly and this orchestra more and more emerges as one of today’s foremost ensembles. There is also in the Vier letzte Lieder some outstanding solo playing by unnamed instrumentalists: the horn solo in September is magical and the violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen is in the same league.

The sung texts and translations are, as seems to be the norm nowadays, only available on the internet.

My first recommendations for Vier letzte Lieder are still a handful, including the now historical recordings by Lisa Della Casa and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Kiri Te Kanawa’s second version – with Solti – and Soile Isokoski (Ondine ODE982-2) plus Nina Stemme’s superb version from last year. However, Ricarda Merbeth’s readings are undoubtedly thrilling and the complete set of the Brentano-Lieder with her tremendous reading of Lied der Frauen lends further importance to this disc.

Göran Forsling



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