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CD: Crotchet

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letze Lieder, AV150 (1948)* (Frühling [3:44]; September [5:19]; Beim Schlafengehen [5:21]; Im Abendrot [8:20])
12 Orchestral Songs**: Muttertändelei Op.43/2 [2:04]; Waldseligkeit Op.49/1 [3:14]; Zueignung Op.10/1 [1:50]; Freundliche Vision Op.48/1 [3:06]; Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland Op.56/6 [6:39]; Ruhe, Meine Seele Op.27/1 [3:57]; Meinem Kinde Op.37/3 [2:50]; Wiegenlied Op.41/1 [4:50]; Morgen! Op.27/4 [3:50]; Das Bächlein Op.88/1 [2:05]; Das Rosenband Op.36/1 [3:17]; Winterweihe Op.48/4 [3:22]
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
*Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin; **London Symphony Orchestra/George Szell
rec. * Grünewaldkirche, Berlin, 1-3 September 1965, and ** Kingsway Hall, London, 10-14 and 18 September, 1968. ADD.
Texts included on CD.
EMI CLASSICS MASTERS 9659412 [64:34]

Experience Classicsonline
This is one of the first releases in a new reissue series, EMI Masters, the first releases of which include a number of classic EMI recordings. Despite eminent competition from Dennis Brain’s Mozart Horn Concertos, Beecham’s Grieg Peer Gynt, and the du Pré/Barbirolli Elgar Cello Concerto, this is my clear first choice from the initial release. A parallel series restores several classic – and some recent – opera recordings, of which another Richard Strauss recording, again with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, bringing us the Karajan recording of Der Rosenkavalier, is again my first choice.

I owned this recording of the Four Last Songs and other lieder on LP, where it reigned for many years, still at full price. Though it has a new, more attractive cover and a new catalogue number – a new matrix number, even – it has been around on CD before. The new matrix number proves that it has been made from new stampers, but the earlier, perfectly acceptable digital enhancement, (P) 1997, is employed, so it’s certainly no worse than when Ian Lace urged Musicweb International readers to “go and buy this great reissue” – see review. As well as the improved cover, an added recommendation is that the new asking price is rather lower than that of the earlier GROC release.

Recently I have been happy with the performance of the Last Songs by Lucia Popp and the LPO under Klaus Tennstedt. Although that version seems to be out of the catalogue at the moment, it must surely return, so I have used it as my chief comparison. It used to be one of the highlights of the original in-house HMV Classics series, coupled with the Rosenkavalier Waltzes (LPO/Norman del Mar), Sextet from Capriccio (Philharmonia/Wolfgang Sawallisch) and, best of all Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder (Janet Baker/LPO/Sir Adrian Boult). If you come across a good second-hand copy, snap it up. Otherwise, Passionato offer Popp’s Four Last Songs as part of a 2-CD set The Very Best of Lucia Popp in mp3 and lossless sound (5851022). Amazon.co.uk have her Last Songs coupled with Also sprach Zarathustra and Don Juan in mp3, from the US Angel version of an EMI Encore CD no longer available in the UK.

Popp’s tempi in these Lieder are usually characterised as exceptionally slow, but it’s only in Beim Schlafengehen that she is significantly slower than Schwarzkopf: 6:20 against the latter’s 5:21 in 1965 and 4:27 in 1953. Oddly enough, I defy anyone to say that the 1953 Schwarzkopf version is too fast or insensitive – she imparts all the feeling that one could wish for – yet her 1965 version on the current reissue sounds just right, too, at almost a minute longer, as also does Popp at almost two minutes longer. I find it hard to choose between Popp and Schwarzkopf here and, indeed, throughout the Last Songs. It’s not so much tempo that matters as whether the interpretation convinces – and all three do.

In both cases, Popp and Schwarzkopf, I couldn’t bring myself to pause the CD to gather my thoughts after hearing Beim Schlafengehen; I simply had to listen on to the final song, Im Abendrot and was even more enchanted both times. Once again, I find it almost impossible to choose between two such ravishing versions, especially as the chosen tempi are much closer on this occasion: a youthful but unhurried 7:11 from Schwarzkopf in 1953, 8:20 in 1965 and 8:22 from Popp. The Judgement of Paris occasioned the Trojan War – by choosing Aphrodite and accepting her gift of Helen, he earned the enmity of Hera and of the Greeks – I fear that to plump for either Schwarzkopf or Popp might cause a comparable storm. I wouldn’t wish to offend the supporters of either, when I count myself an admirer of both.

I also listened to the Naxos Historical reissue of Schwarzkopf’s earlier (1953, mono) recording of the Four Last Songs, with Otto Ackerman (8.111145, with excerpts from Arabella – see review). I had missed out on that recording, but I am pleased to have caught up with it now. If forced to choose, I should have to prefer the later version with Szell, if only because the other twelve Lieder are preferable to the excerpts from Arabella, but the two are complementary, as J.B. Steane points out in the excellent notes in the EMI booklet. There is another, slightly more expensive, version of this 1953 recording on EMI’s own Historical label (5858282), but the Naxos transfer makes an excellent job of cleaning up a dry old recording.

Naxos have also recently reissued the recording made by Lisa della Casa with the VPO and Karl Böhm, also dating from 1953 and, again, coupled with excerpts from Arabella – usually regarded as her forte – Ariadne and Capriccio. (8.111347). I’m sorry to report that, for once, Naxos have not worked their magic on the sound sufficiently for me to enjoy the singing. In any case, we have better recordings of her Arabella, with Solti in 1957 on Decca Originals 475 7731 or less expensively, but without libretto, on Decca Heritage 478 1400 – see review – and live in 1963 with Fischer-Dieskau and Keilberth on DG 477 5625.

Where the current Schwarzkopf reissue really scores is in including ethereal performances of twelve other orchestral songs. Six of these are included on an Ondine CD which has been highly praised and which also contains a version of the Four Last Songs: Soile Isokoski with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Marek Janowski (ODE982-2). Having played Schwarzkopf’s Morgen! and come to the conclusion that nothing could match her, I tried Isokoski and began to think the unthinkable, that there was very little to choose between them. Isokoski and Janowski take just 3:35 against Schwarzkopf and Szell’s 3:50, without sounding at all rushed. Siegfried Jerusalem, on a deleted Philips recording with the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur takes the tenor version of this song at almost exactly the same speed as Isokoski; a creditable effort, but one which fails to capture the magic conjured by either of the soprano performances.

Jerusalem comes closer to capturing the mood of Zueignung, but once again one only has to turn to Schwarzkopf, at almost exactly the same tempo, to hear what a truly wonderful piece of music this can become. It seems as if Schwarzkopf is unassailable and her tempo just right until Isokoski demonstrates how it can be taken a shade faster and still maintain its power.

Ondine choose to end the Isokoski recording with the Four Last Songs; I find this preferable to placing them at the beginning. Schwarzkopf’s beguiling performance of Winterweihe makes a good finale, but Im Abendrot provides an even better note on which to end.

In the Last Songs, Isokoski’s tempi are consistently a shade or two faster than those of Schwarzkopf/Szell and closer to those of the earlier recording with Ackerman. I know that some believe that Isokoski takes these, especially the last two songs, too fast, but, in fact, with the exception of Frühling, her timings fall almost exactly half way between those of Schwarzkopf’s two recordings.

 
Schwarzkopf
1953
Schwarzkopf
1965
Isokoski

Frühling

3:24

3:44

2:59

September

4:07

5:19

4:52

Beim Schlafengehen

4:27

5:21

4:58

Im Abendrot

7:11

8:20

7:41

In my opinion, Isokoski captures the mood of the final stanza of Beim Schlafengehen as ethereally as Schwarzkopf, in either incarnation, or Popp:

Und die Seele unbewacht
Will in freien Flügen schweben,
Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.
[And my soul, free from surveillance, longs to hover in free flight, to live deeply and thousand-fold in the magic circle of the night.]

If anything, I was even more convinced by Isokoski’s Im Abendrot. My only reservation is that she takes us so completely into the mood of the poem that the words sometimes become lost, but that applies to just about every one of my comparisons: the mood at the end is hardly conducive to clear diction:

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde –
ist dies etwa der Tod?
[O widespread, silent peace, so profound in the gloaming. How tired we are of wandering – is this, perhaps, Death?]

I came across the Isokoski recording almost by accident, looking for comparative versions on the Naxos Music Library. To say that I rate it as little short of the quality of the current Schwarzkopf reissue is high praise, indeed. I shall now almost certainly be buying it or, more probably, shall download it from classicsonline or passionatio. I was also very impressed by hearing Isokoski’s recording of Sibelius orchestral songs (ODE1080-5: Recording of the Month – see review) – having heard this on Naxos Music Library, it becomes another potential purchase.

The texts and translations – better than my literal efforts above – are included as a pdf document on the new EMI CD. This is preferable to having to search for them on the web but, unless you print them out, you won’t be able to have them in front of you as you listen – the CD cannot be in the player and the PC at the same time. John Steane’s excellent notes are reprinted from the 1998 release.

The recordings have stood the test of time very well and the whole enterprise may safely receive a strong recommendation. I cannot imagine coming across a better Bargain of the Month among my current batch of CDs. I shall wish to supplement it with the earlier mono recording and I shall not be getting rid of the Lucia Popp version, which I hope EMI will soon reissue. For an alternative, fresher but not superior, view of the Four Last Songs and some of Strauss’s other orchestral songs, I shall place the Isokoski recording on my wish-list, or download it from classicsonline. If it has to be just one for the proverbial desert island, however, it will have to be the present Schwarzkopf reissue.

Brian Wilson
 


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