What sort of voice did Pauline Strauss have? She was a professional
singer when she first met Richard Strauss and he seems have been
inspired by her voice, writing a considerable number of songs
for her. Before she retired from stage she had sung Elisabeth
(Tannhäuser), Agathe (Die Freischutz), Leonore (Fidelio)
and Donna Anna which implies a voice of some size. But elsewhere
she is described as having a voice which was neither large nor
beautiful. It should be admitted that the majority of songs which
Strauss wrote for her were lieder, with just piano accompaniment.
Strauss did, however,
arrange many of his songs for voice and orchestra and it is
in these versions that they have become well known, but this
takes us further and further from Pauline’s voice. In 1918
for instance, Strauss arranged a number of songs for Elisabeth
Schumann. And it is Elisabeth Schumann that Christine Schäfer
brings to mind in this disc of Strauss songs.
It is not a new
disc, Schäfer’s contribution first appeared in 1998 in tandem
with songs by Mozart. And Mattila’s Four Last Songs first
appeared in 1999 on an all-Strauss disc. Now Eloquence have
chosen to combine the two to create this mixed recital.
the Strauss songs with a wonderfully silvery voice, a superb
sense of line and a very old-fashioned feeling of pureness
and focus. She does not use vibrato to widen and enrich the
voice so that in many ways she as akin to earlier interpreters
like Elisabeth Schumann. You only have to listen to Wiegenlied
or Waldseligkeit to marvel at the way Schäfer can
thin her tone down or spin out glorious silvery high notes.
These are very much songs sung by Sophie (from Der Rosenkavalier).
It isn’t all about
vocal quality. In fact she combines this with a good feeling
for the words. Schäfer realises that these are songs, not
vocalises. She clearly articulates the texts and weds their
meaning to the music.
But if you listen
to a couple of the bigger, stormier numbers, such as Frühlingsfeier
or Gesang der Apollopriesterin there is a feeling
that her voice does not respond entirely well to pressure.
If these songs are sung by Sophie then she is a Sophie who
will not be developing into a Marschallin. On this disc Schäfer’s
voice seems entirely to lack the possibility that age and
pressure might make a bigger, richer instrument. For this,
we must be entirely glad. But it does mean that in these stormy
numbers the voice turns a little steely and you get the feeling
that she is only weathering the storm with some determination.
You might want
to have these songs sung by a more refulgent voice, by a Marschallin
rather than a Sophie. But you need refulgence combined with
purity and accuracy. These are not songs which can be sung
flabbily. This explains the number of relatively light-voiced
singers who have had success with Strauss’s orchestral songs.
So on balance I would say that Schäfer’s performances of the
Strauss songs are ones that I would not want to be without.
The disc is completed
by Karita Mattila’s account of the Four Last Songs.
Mattila is definitely the Marschallin to Schäfer’s Sophie.
She sings the songs with darker, richer tones than Schäfer,
whilst retaining purity and flexibility. Though the Four
Last Songs were premiered by Kirsten Flagstad, it should
be remembered that Flagstad had a relatively unusual vocal
development as she spent the first eighteen years of her career
singing only in Scandinavia and sang roles which ranged from
Wagner to operetta and musical comedy. This meant that she
allied remarkable focus and flexibility to power. Few modern
day Wagner sopranos could hope to tackle the Four Last
Songs with anything like the flexibility and accuracy
Whilst I can admire
classic recordings by singers like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and
Lucia Popp, frankly I want them performed by bigger, richer
voices. But achieving this richness without compromising power
and accuracy is tricky.
a voice which combines richness with power and flexibility,
would seem well placed to create an ideal performance. In
many ways she is superb, turning in a vocal part which is
gloriously rich, but with a strong sense of line. She has
the tonal control to give us the sheer beauty in these songs
which bears comparison with recordings by sopranos such as
Gundula Janowitz. But in the faster passages her technical
control sometimes lets her down. There are short passages
in Frühling which are rather flabby.
for many people, will be Mattila’s rather generalised feeling
for the text. She entirely fails to deliver the sort of textual
intensity which Schäfer gives us.
Both singers are
beautifully accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado.
As might be expected from this orchestra and conductor, the
singers are well supported but never overwhelmed and Abbado
brings out the brilliance of Strauss’s orchestration.
This is not my
ideal set of Strauss songs, but it comes moderately close
and gives us some superb Strauss singing.