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Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Wiegenlied [4.29] (1); Das Rosenband [3.23] (1); Liebeshymnus [2.19] (1); Das Bächlein [2.16] (1); Morgen [3.55] (1); Gesang der Apollopriesterin [7.34] (1); Freundliche Vision [2.52] (1); Cäcilie [2.12] (1); Verführung [7.48] (1); Frühlingsfeier [3.05] (1); Waldseligkeit [2.54] (1); Four Last Songs [22.33] (2)
Christine Schäfer (soprano) (1); Karita Mattila (soprano) (2)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
rec. Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, 1997 (1); Grosser Saal, Berlin Philharmonie, Berlin 1998 (2)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ELOQUENCE 4800414 [65.27] 
Experience Classicsonline


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.

Schäfer sings 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 required.

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.

Mattila, with 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.

More importantly, 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.

Robert Hugill


 




 


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