What better way to spend a cold, crisp winter’s afternoon than
basking in the warm glow of Strauss’s Four Last Songs?
This music, of ineffable loveliness, has been recorded by some
of the greatest voices of the past 60 years, among them Kirsten
Flagstad, Lisa Della Casa, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (twice), Gundula
Janowitz, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Arleen Augér, Lucia Popp,
Felicity Lott, Soile Isokoski, Christine Brewer and Renée Fleming
(also twice). All of these singers bring something special to
this work and must surely be included in any Strauss collection
worth the name.
Now we have the
Irish-born soprano Heather Harper who, like Schwarzkopf and
Fleming, has also recorded the piece twice; the first outing,
with Norman del Mar, is now available – appropriately enough
– on a collection entitled Desert Island Discs.
Her partner here is the late Richard Hickox, whose untimely
death in November 2008 left many wondering who will take up
the baton for British music, which he championed for so long.
At least this Strauss reissue – including a selection of the
composer’s finest orchestral songs – reminds us that Hickox’s
talents were more wide-ranging; indeed, I have indelible memories
of his L’enfance du Christ from Cardiff a few years ago,
which surely warrants a DVD release soon.
As for Harper, she
has sung Wagner, Strauss and Britten, substituting for soprano
Galina Vishnevskaya at the premiere of the War Requiem
in 1962. She retired from the stage in 1984 but fortunately
she continued to record for a while thereafter. I say fortunately
because she went on to give us this enthralling Strauss disc,
which had me listening so intently I lost all track of time
For Strauss the
Four Last Songs are the glorious culmination of what,
towards the end, was perhaps a rather inglorious musical career.
Whatever the facts of his relationship with the Nazis – dedicating
Das Bächlein to Goebbels was particularly unhelpful –
no-one can deny these songs also mark the very pinnacle of Romantic
warmth and radiance. Essentially these poems – the first three
by Hesse, the fourth by Eichendorff – sum up a life lived to
the full, with approaching death calmly awaited. All the recordings
I have mentioned are highly desirable, but then it’s an inexhaustible
work that responds readily to many different interpretations.
Harper sings Frühling
with a fullness of tone and smoothness of line, the LSO sounding
suitably refulgent, too. There’s no sign of any vocal wear and
tear, with Harper floating her high notes with astonishing ease
and accuracy. What struck me immediately is that conductor,
orchestra and soloist are working as one, the kind of alchemy
that makes Schwarzkopf’s recording with Georg Szell so very
special. That elusive chemistry is missing in Isokoski, Fleming
and Brewer’s accounts; indeed, Marek Janowski (for Isokoski)
is rather too brisk and matter of fact, although the Randfunk-Sinfonieorchester
Berlin do bring some magical touches to this score.
On to the autumnal
swirl of September, where I found myself warming to Harper’s
generosity of spirit, which brings so much lift and joy to this
song. Schwarzkopf is rather more inward here, but then she finds
a rapt stillness that has never been matched. Meanwhile Harper’s
glorious Augen zu and answering LSO horns are just ravishing.
Indeed, this CfP
transfer of an Andrew Keener/Mike Clements original is exemplary;
orchestra and soloist are ideally balanced, the Abbey Road studio
sounding as warm and cultured as ever. Given that some of EMI’s
early digital recordings were a little hard on the ear this
is a very pleasant surprise. Nowhere are all these sonic advantages
more apparent than in the dark prelude to Beim Schlafengehen;
Harper’s response to the text is intelligent – intuitive, even
– and the LSO strings and horns are just superb. I defy anyone
not to be deeply moved by such wondrous music making.
But it’s Im abendrot
that usually makes the most impact, and if magisterial singing
is what you want here Norman and Price certainly fit the bill.
From an orchestral point of view Szell and his Berlin radio
band are without peer in this song, capturing the music’s ‘breathing’
quality throughout. That said, Hickox runs him close, drawing
rich, sonorous sounds from the LSO. There is much detail here,
too, and Harper’s voice takes on an ache, a tenderness, that
is just spellbinding. Hickox responds to every nuance and flutter
of this evanescent score, the soloist’s ist dies etwas
der Tod? as thrilling as any I’ve ever heard. And if you
think Szell’s postlude is magical, the LSO sound every bit as
accomplished, even if they can’t quite match the radiance of
Well, how do
you follow that? An invidious task, yet one that Harper and
Hickox manage very well indeed. This selection of orchestral
songs – many written for voice and piano but later orchestrated
for specific singers – was recorded a year earlier than the
Four Last Songs. The sound is a touch brighter, but that
hardly matters. Harper is admirably secure in Das Bächlein,
the LSO as supportive, if not quite as sumptuous, as before.
However the brooding prelude to the Christmas song Die heil'gen
drei Könige aus Morgenland is magically done, crowned with
horn playing to die for. Harper colours and shades her voice
with considerable subtlety – the floated high notes assured
as ever – and the Stygian rumble of the bass drum is very well
I suspect the real
hero is Richard Hickox, who never allows this music to sound
overripe or overblown. Just listen to the Klopstock song Das
Rosenband, with its skipping pizzicato strings and
general lightness of tread. In fact, it’s an intelligently chosen
programme, with enough contrast to keep one listening with rapt
attention throughout. The Brentano setting An die Nacht
is bigger boned and more vocally taxing for the soloist. Harper
tackles the high notes with aplomb, the orchestra powerfully
focused in the tuttis.
a much-prized gem in the Straussian treasure chest, eliciting
some lovely playing from the LSO and suitably limpid singing
from the soloist. It’s all most apt in this gentlest of songs,
and very different from the sudden thrust and tension of Dehmel’s
Der Arbeitsmann. This is Strauss in a darker vein, yet
Harper easily makes herself heard above the stentorian climaxes.
The gently rocking
phrases of Traum durch die Dämmerung are deftly articulated,
as is Harper’s hushed singing. How refreshing it is to hear
a voice that always sounds so well rounded and untroubled by
unlovely vibrato. Just listen to her perfectly sustained singing
at the close of this song and the ease with which she navigates
the Dehmel setting, Mein Auge. Ditto that other Straussian
staple, Zueignung, which Jessye Norman essays with thrilling
amplitude and creaminess of tone. Harper is not far behind and,
despite the slightly overenthusiastic orchestral response, she
is as secure and powerful as ever.
Harper brings a
wonderful sense of yearning to Befreit, where I found
myself marvelling anew at her vocal dexterity and range. Indeed,
I cannot find fault with her anywhere, such is the authority
and sheer artistry on display here. And although Des Dichters
Abendgang boasts some echt-Wagnerian horns and rippling
figures it’s as Straussian a piece of orchestral writing as
you’re likely to hear, not always subtle but undeniably sumptuous.
To top it all soloist, conductor and orchestra throw everything
into Ich liebe dich, which makes for an exhilarating
coda to a most desirable disc.
Elsewhere on this
page you’ll see a section entitled ‘How did I miss that?’, which
rather sums up my response to this reissue. I’ve heard Harper
is minor roles over the years but I’m ashamed to admit I had
no idea she was such an accomplished and exciting soloist. As
for Hickox and the LSO, they have done Strauss proud.
A must-hear and
must-have for all Straussians.