Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)

Orchestral Songs
1. Traum durch die Dämmerung (Dreaming in the twilight), Op. 29, No. 1 [2:27]
2. Wiegenlied (Lullaby/Cradle Song), Op. 41, No. 1 [3:51]
3. Meinem Kinde (To My Child), Op. 37, No. 3 [2:50]
4. Gesang der Apollopriesterin (Song of the priestess of Apollo), Op. 33, No. 3 [5:42]
5. Allerseelen (All Soul’s Day), Op. 10, No. 8 [3:12]
6. Ruhe, meine Seele (Be still, my soul!), Op. 27, No. 1 [3:49]
7. Cäcilie (Cecilia), Op. 27, No. 2 [2:20]
8. Mein Auge (My eye), Op. 37, No. 4 [2:35]
9. Waldseligkeit (Woodland Bliss), Op. 49, No. 1 [3:19]
10. Morgen! (Tomorrow!), Op. 27, No. 4 [3:42]
11. Befreit (Released), Op. 39, No. 4 [5:57]
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), Op. posth (1948)
12. Frühling (Spring) [3:48]
13. September [5:25]
14. Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) [5:37]
15. Im Abendrot (At Sunset) [8:00]
Michaela Kaune (soprano)
NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Hanover/Eiji Oue
rec. live, 6-7 May 2004, Large Studio of the NDR National Broadcasting Station, Hanover, Germany (tracks 1-11). 15-17 November 2004, St. Athanasius Kirche, Hanover, Germany (tracks 12-15)
BERLIN CLASSICS 0017812BC [62:32]

Occasionally you come across a recording that is new to you although it has been in the catalogue for several years. You marvel at its quality wondering why you haven’t heard it before. Sung by soprano Michaela Kaune this outstanding CD is one of those discs.

Recently I watched a 2006 archive broadcast from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. It was Sir Mark Elder’s delightful semi-staged performance of Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel - abridged children version aimed at children - from the Philharmonie. The performance is currently available to watch free of charge. Highlights can be seen in a trailer on their Digital Concert Hall. Link: I was struck by the outstanding acting and stunning soprano voice of Michaela Kaune in the role of Gretel. Consequently I began looking for Kaune recordings and this Berlin Classics disc is the result.

Although Hamburg-born Kaune performs internationally she has tended to concentrate on operatic roles in her native Germany. She joined the Deutsche Oper in Berlin as far back as the 1997/8 season and has played numerous roles there including Micaëla in Carmen, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Marguerite in Faust, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, Anna in Marschner’s Hans Heiling, Euridice in Orfeo ed Euridice and the title role in Arabella. Not surprisingly, she has appeared in many of Europe’s major opera houses. Notably in 2008 she made her debut at the Bayreuth Festspiele singing Eva in Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. More recently in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s 2010/11 season she was the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, Madame Lidoine in Dialogues des Carmélites and Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos. This season she has taken the part of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Deutsche Oper Berlin where she is also to assume the title role in Janáček’s Jenůfa in January 2012.

On this excellent Berlin Classics disc the feature work is the Four Last Songs. These were composed in 1948, a year before the composer’s death. They were posthumously published. Not surprisingly these masterworks have been recorded on numerous occasions and the competition in the catalogues is particularly fierce. Since its release in 2006 Kaune’s recording has rather fallen under the radar with higher profile sopranos on major labels such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Jessye Norman and Renée Fleming taking centre-stage.

Strauss’s Four Last Songs are often classed as being amongst the most haunting and moving music that has ever been composed. To me this is an autumnal work, suffused with nostalgia, the colours of sunset and the experience of a long, productive and controversial life. The settings of Hermann Hesse (the first three songs) and Joseph von Eichendorff (the fourth song) contemplate Spring (Frühling), September, Going to Sleep (Beim Schlafengehen) and At Sunset (Im Abendrot). It was in 1950 at London’s Royal Albert Hall when the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad gave the world première accompanied by the Philharmonia under Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Michaela Kaune’s bright and creamy-toned voice has considerable amplitude with impeccable diction and the natural ability to capture the spirit of the texts. Undoubtedly these Strauss songs have been performed more sumptuously and by voices with more honey and silk but they have surely never been expressed in a more genuinely heart-felt way or with more radiance. The German soprano seems comfortable right across her range. She has the ability to glide up to the highest notes with alarming ease and her light vibrato is never obtrusive. With all this assurance and drama communicated it is not difficult to accept that Kaune is a natural actress.

Lightly scored, the rocking accompaniment to Wiegenlied (Lullaby/Cradle Song) is provided by a mere seven strings. The assured Kaune is quite enchanting. This is the finest performance of Wiegenlied that I have heard. Credit is due to the NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Eiji Oue for their rich and full accompaniment in Gesang der Apollopriesterin (Song of the priestess of Apollo) here sung so dramatically. The perfume of rose petals is evoked by the captivating interpretation of Allerseelen (All Soul’s Day) and in the passionate setting Cacilie (Cecilia) the sumptuous, sweet-toothed accompaniment is remarkable. Kaune’s atmospheric rendition of the justly celebrated Morgen! (Tomorrow!) is as tender and soft as feather-down with a plaintive violin solo that suggests weeping tears.

Throughout Vier letzte Lieder Kaune displays ravishing vocal quality with a wide range of tone colour. It seems appropriate that Oue refrains from rushing proceedings along and allows the music to breathe. I especially enjoyed the radiantly performed Frühling (Spring) with the voice soaring with consummate ease. The horn solo in September is quite magical. Opened by low dark strings in Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) the powerful climax as the singer depicts the re-awakening subject is remarkable in force. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. The violin solo at 1:44 has never sounded as meltingly beautiful. In the shimmering Im Abendrot (At Sunset) Kaune confidently conveys Strauss’s intense and wearying emotions implying reconciliation in the face of approaching death. The eleven orchestral songs were impressively recorded at a live concert at the large studio of the NDR National Broadcasting Station, Hanover. No applause has been left in and there is little unwanted noise to detract from the enjoyment. Recorded at St. Athanasius Church, Hanover the Four Last Songs are marginally less vivid.

Of the alternative versions in the catalogue I remain an admirer of the enthralling and award-winning 1982 Leipzig account of the Four Last Songs performed by Jessye Norman. Kurt Masur conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Norman’s warmly passionate interpretation is outstanding. Taken by Kurt Masur at measured pace Norman displays a driven desire for high drama. My version is on Philips 411 052-2 (c/w Strauss 6 Orchestral Songs). Renée Fleming with the Munich Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann on Decca 478 0647 is sumptuous and highly moving. Depending on my mood I can find Fleming’s approach a touch over-sentimental, even cloying. It is coupled with Strauss’s 4 Orchestral Songs, 3 Songs from Ariadne auf Naxos and 1 song from Die ägyptische Helena. Much lamented since her untimely death Lucia Popp made a most heart-rending London recording in 1982 with Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. My account is found on the compilation double set ‘The Very Best of Lucia Popp’ EMI Classics 5 85102 2.

I fully agree with the substantial crowd of admirers of the award-winning version from the assured Soile Isokoski. She possesses a firm and silvery timbre. Isokoski does however lose a touch of intensity and warmth at the expense of her cool precision. Isokoski’s 2001 recording was made in Berlin with Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra on Ondine ODE 982-2 (c/w Strauss 11 Orchestral Songs). A lesser known but outstanding account comes from Anja Harteros and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons on BR Klassik 900707 (c/w Strauss Rosenkavalier Suite, Till Eulenspiegels). Recorded live in 2009 at the Munich Philharmonie Harteros’s warm and expressive tone conveys impressive sincerity and gravitas.

I also rate highly the captivating version from Cheryl Studer. Her creamy texture and warmly expressive tones are complemented by the Dresden Staatskapelle under Giuseppe Sinopoli. Studer made the recording in Dresden in 1993 on Deutsche Grammophon 439 865-2. The valuable coupling includes Studer’s marvellous performance of Wagner’s 5 Wesendonk Lieder and the Vorspiel and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Two other splendid versions worthy of consideration are from: Gundula Janowitz who sings beautifully taking great care with the meaning of the text. Janowitz is accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan recorded in 1973 in Berlin; it’s on Deutsche Grammophon ‘The Originals’ 447 422-2 (c/w Tod und Verklärung and Metamorphosen). There is also the powerful and dramatically sung 2007 release from Nina Stemme who is one of the younger sopranos on the scene today. I did find her heavy vibrato rather wearing. Stemme is accompanied by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden under Antonio Pappano. It’s on EMI Classics 378 7972 (c/w Strauss final scenes from Capriccio and Salome).

Of the older accounts a confident recommendation must go to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s recording with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under George Szell. For this stunning version Schwarzkopf, then in her fifties, demonstrates a tremendous range of interpretative insights with a voice of heavenly beauty. This truly classic recording from Berlin in 1965 is on an excellent digitally re-mastered disc of Great Recordings of the Century EMI Classics 5 66908 2 (c/w Strauss 12 Orchestral Songs).

For Berlin Classics Michaela Kaune proves a thoughtful and radiantly beautiful interpreter. Fingers crossed for a future recording by of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.

Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Four Last Songs

Thoughtful and radiantly beautiful.