Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
The Complete Songs - Volume 6
Einerlei, Op.69/3 [2.50]
Der Stern, Op.69/1 [2.13]
Waldesfahrt, Op.69/4 [3.38]
Schlechtes Wetter, Op.69/3 [2.36]
Rote Rosen (1883) [2.27]
Die erwachte Rose (1880) [3.29]
Begegnung (1880) [2.09]
Wir beide woollen springen (1896) [1.14]
Das Bächlein, Op.88/1 [2.32]
Blick vom oberen Belvedere, Op.88/2 [4.33]
Krämerspiegel, Op.66 [32.18]
Wer hat’s getan? (1885) [3.41]
Malven (1948) [3.19]
Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Roger Vignoles (piano)
rec. All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, 16-18 January 2012
HYPERION CDA67844 [67.00]
“It is easy to be rude on the Continent,” wrote the Hungarian George Mikes, when exiled in England in 1946. “You just shout and call people names of a zoological character.” This observation was certainly true in the case of Richard Strauss when he wrote his song cycle Krämerspiegel which lies at the centre of this disc. He was perhaps helped by the fact that the music publishers at whose heads the insults were hurled all seemed to have “names of a zoological character.” He wrote the cycle for the publishing firm of Bote and Bock, who had insisted on his fulfilment of a contract to write for them despite the fact that they were at loggerheads over the issue of composers’ royalties. Strauss took full advantage of the fact that Bock in German means “goat”. He also had a pop at a good many other publishing firms for good measure, and the booklet tells us that Breitkopf actually insisted on banning for decades any publication of the words in which he was punningly called a “flathead”. Not altogether surprisingly, Bote and Bock also declined to publish the cycle in which they were so viciously attacked.
In fact the set of short songs is rather more just than a series of diatribes in which music publishers are compared unfavourably with animals. There are quotations from lots of Strauss’s own works in the manner of Ein Heldenleben¸ and even more extraordinarily a first appearance of the beautiful theme which Strauss was later to employ in the moonlit interlude which precedes the last scene of Capriccio. Having said that, the satirical verses are most certainly not masterpieces, and many of the insults nowadays seem puerile if not incomprehensible. The Germans seem to have a weakness for puns (as did the Victorians), and there are plenty of them here. The charming Elizabeth Watts delivers the insults with a degree of charm which quite defuses the vitriol in the words, and Roger Vignoles is left to make up the satirical weight with some dashing delivery of the lengthy piano preludes, postludes and interludes. It probably needs a male voice to get some of the crudities in the words across with full venom, although when one listens to the over-the-top vituperation of Peter Schreier (on a CD no longer available) one may welcome the restraint that Elizabeth Watts demonstrates here.
It must be observed however that in his campaigns on behalf of composer’s copyright Strauss betrayed no more sensitivity to political niceties than he did in his brief and disastrous flirtations with the Nazis after 1933. He quickly founds his links with the Party severed after his insistence on retaining the Jew Stefan Zweig as his librettist for Die schweigsame Frau, but not before he had committed the folly of dedicating his song Das Bächlein with its final longing refrain “mein Führer!” to Goebbels. When the song was published after his death as part of the Op.88 set, the dedication was discreetly omitted. It is coupled here with its companion from the same set Blick von oberen Belvedere, an evocation of the eighteenth century which Strauss treats in a decidedly un-classical manner.
The disc opens with four songs from the Op.69 set written over twenty years earlier, and these constitute the most substantial music in this volume. Combining poems by the Prussian aristocrat Ludwig Achim von Arnim (1781-1831) with those by the aesthetic Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) might seem like an odd juxtaposition, but in the event the two very different authors set each other off admirably. Roger Vignoles in his booklet note suggests that Waldesfahrt has suffered by comparison with Schumann’s setting of the same poem as Mein Wagen rollet langsam, but Strauss responds with far greater immediacy to Heine’s words and Watts brings the song to real life.
The Op.69 songs are followed by three pieces of Strauss juvenilia dating from his teenage years. They are decidedly in the style of Schumann or Mendelssohn, coming as they do from the period when Strauss still abominated Wagner and all his works. His father Franz Strauss had played horn in the orchestra for the first performance of Tristan in the year after his son’s birth, and had hated every second of it. They give very little real indication of what was to come. These pieces were not published until 1959, when they were first performed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The style of Watts here - and in other places, too - strongly suggests the very individual style of Schwarzkopf herself.
There are two other fairly early songs included here which were not published during Strauss’s lifetime. Wir beide wollen springen was finally published in 1964, and Wer hat’s getan? ten years later. It is not clear why Strauss himself did not include them in one or another of his collections, but neither deserves total neglect and Watts and Vignoles make a good case for both of them.
Which brings us to Malven, the last song on this disc and presumably the last song in Hyperion’s six-volume collection of the complete Strauss songs with piano. This song was the very last piece that Strauss wrote, and he sent the score as a personal gift to the soprano Maria Jeritza with a request that she should send him a copy - presumably with the intention of orchestrating it. She never did so, and indeed never performed the song either; it was not given until 1985 when the manuscript was sold following Jeritza’s death. This rather sad story of neglect, and the fact that the work was Strauss’s last work, has led to a good deal of special pleading on behalf of the song, which has been compared with the Four last songs written the previous year. It is true that the song has echoes of that magnificent collection, especially in the wide-ranging vocal line; and if Strauss had managed to orchestrate it, the somewhat bare piano part might have been enriched by increased richness of colour. As it stands, not even Jessye Norman’s passionate advocacy (on her Philips collection) can convince me that it is a masterpiece on the same level as Beim Schlafengehen, to which Roger Vignoles compares it in his booklet note. Elizabeth Watts does not try to sell it as hard as Jessye Norman did, which leaves the song to stand on its own merits; and she is advantageously slower than Soile Isokoski on Ondine. All the same it makes a rather sad little postlude to Strauss’s superlative output of songs.
At the time I was reviewing this CD, Radio 3 undertook a comparative review of all recordings of Strauss’s songs with piano as one of their valuable Building a library series. They came up with a first recommendation for the six-CD set made by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore in 1972, which included first recordings of a good many of the individual songs - although excluding the unperformed and unpublished Malven. The late and lamented Fischer-Dieskau was a very great artist; but the new Hyperion edition with Roger Vignoles has several advantages over his ground-breaking survey. In the first place, they are able to include songs excluded from the Fischer-Dieskau set; and secondly, they are able to give many of the songs in the soprano register which Strauss clearly had in mind. In this context Elizabeth Watts’s recital under consideration here, although it might be regarded as a collection of various odds and ends left over from previous volumes, makes for a very satisfying conclusion to the Hyperion edition. She rescues Krämerspiegel from the status of a piece of unworthy vituperation; she gives Malven proper consideration, although without convincing me that it is a masterpiece; and altogether she gives the music some of the best performances it is ever likely to get. Earlier in this review I compared her voice with that of Schwarzkopf; there could be little higher compliment.
Roger Vignoles is a superb accompanist; and the balance between voice and piano is just about perfect in a nicely resonant acoustic. For a real surprise, listen to the postlude to Von Händlern wird die Kunst bedroht from Krämerspiegel; apart from the anticipation of the Capriccio theme, we also get a subtle reference to the same phrase from Tod und Verklärung with which Strauss brought his Four last songs to a conclusion. The phrase may be the same, but the result is quite different although equally effective. That’s mastery for you.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

Watts gives the music some of the best performances it is ever likely to get. 

Reviews of other releases in this series
Volume 1 ~~ Volume 2 ~~ Volume 3 ~~ Volume 4

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