One thing is for sure: as bad as this world première recording of the “Four Last Songs” is, it is never going to sound any better than Andrew Rose’s re-mastering here. The swish, scratch and drop-outs remain but the glory of Flagstad’s voice and the soaring solo violin both emerge remarkably clearly considering the primitive provenance of the original recording, on worn acetate discs. Matters begin so unpromisingly that the listener might despair – but stick with it, and things improve; either that or you get used to it.
They are in a different order from the more logical and satisfying one that we have become used to; that order was devised by Ernst Roth, editor for musical publisher Boosey & Hawkes and Strauss’s friend, although there is no indication that Strauss ever intended the songs to be seen as a coherent cycle. Furthermore, Flagstad opts for a lower G rather than the top B flat on “Wie ein Wunder von mir” in “Frühling", here placed third in sequence rather than opening the four songs. Both the order and that transposition sound odd to those of us habituated to subsequent practice.
Some passing flatness notwithstanding, the ample beauty of Flagstad’s sound is still a wonder and she sounds utterly absorbed in the textual meaning and mood of these songs. She was only 54 here and not yet in the bad health which plagued her through the last ten years of her life and ultimately prematurely curtailed it. Through the surface noise we may hear the famous golden glow and sheer size of her sound. It was, after all, her voice that Strauss had in mind when he wrote these songs and this explains why larger-voiced singers such as Jessye Norman and Birgit Nilsson have successfully tackled them.
I have twenty and more recordings of “Vier Letzte Lieder” and often favour their lighter, more silvery-voiced exponents, yet I would not be without this artistically and historically important account. As you would expect, Furtwängler provides passionate, yet rhythmically steady support and the Philharmonia, insofar as we may hear them, provides the kind of playing you would expect from an orchestra hand-picked by Walter Legge for EMI only five years earlier. The conclusion to “Im Abendrot” is especially serene and it makes a nice link that Strauss quotes in the postlude the "transfiguration theme" from the work written sixty years earlier which begins the recital programme on this disc.
As for the three tone poems, they fare much better as they were made on tape for commercial release and really sound remarkably good rendered into Pristine’s Ambient Stereo. Furtwängler’s Strauss is very stern, grand and grim; thus the opening to “Tod und Verklärung” is very slow, deliberate and monumental until Furtwängler unleashes the orchestra. Maybe he does not generate the elemental power of Karajan but it is still mightily impressive. Similarly, in “Don Juan” he does not quite match the élan and rapture of the finest versions, nor in “Till Eulenspiegel” are the wit and fun fully brought out, but it is warmly and affectionately interpreted, with Furtwängler’s customary firm grasp of the music’s shape. These remain estimable accounts, superbly played by the VPO.
Masterwork Index: Don Juan
~~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
~~ Tod und Verklärung
~~ Vier letzte Lieder