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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Four Last Songs [21:55]
Ein Heldenleben [46:22]
Anna Netrebko (soprano)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, August 2014
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 3964 [68:19]

This last entry of discs for Strauss’s anniversary year of 2014 is probably also the starriest, and it carries the added attraction of featuring Strauss’s own orchestra. He himself conducted what was then called the Royal Court Opera Orchestra in Berlin between 1898 and 1918. Their successors in the Staatskapelle gave this concert in August 2014, partly to raise funds for the restoration of the Staatsoper building in which Strauss himself conducted. It’s fitting, therefore, that the orchestra and Barenboim, Strauss’s successor, are the most worthwhile things about this recording, though not without qualification.

The main attraction on this disc, as the cover makes plain, is supposed to be Anna Netrebko’s take on the Four Last Songs, but I didn’t rate her performance very highly at all. Lest we forget, she has barely any experience in Strauss, as far as I can see, and it's ambition to the point of hubris to jump in with the Four Last Songs. It's not a great success. The voice is luxurious and opulent, as one might expect, but it lacks the autumnal quality that is so intrinsic to these songs. She makes fairly heavy weather of the opening of Frühling, with a heavily accented low opening and an ascent that feels as though she is deliberately hiking herself up rather than confidently sitting astride the notes. Nor does she sound particularly happy with the German diction. September has the same problems, but here I was reminded of the sensational orchestral playing, not just in the solo horn and violin, but also in the string shimmers that open the song. The orchestra is also the finest aspect of Beim Schlafengehen. Netrebko seems at last to settle into the blissful peace of Im Abendrot, taking us slowly and (fairly) sensitively through the tale of the elderly couple facing their end. She pares the voice down fairly effectively in the third stanza, but then throws on some unnecessary extra volts as she moves into the fourth. No: this is for diehard Netrebko fans only - the rest of us will wait until her interpretation matures somewhat.

Barenboim’s take on Heldenleben is well considered and clearly thought-through, but also rather fussy and it doesn’t always work. He surprises in a couple of places, most notably the very opening: where the cellos and basses of most orchestras attack that opening phrase like a reverse staccato, Barenboim seems to coax it gently into being and then massage it upwards, saving the power for the bigger statements that come later. Later, too, when the Hero theme re-emerges after the battle sequence (track 8, 7:27), it is much quieter than you might expect, suggesting, I wonder, whether the hero’s struggle has got the better of him? I got a similar feeling from those aggressive slurs that come just before the final “resignation” passage (track 10, 1:09), which here sound so dark as to indicate that the hero has been all but crushed. That seems to come through in the final appearance of the Companion theme (track 10, 3:57), which sounds quieter too, as though the hero is in desperate need of his withdrawal. I didn’t warm to everything, here: it’s as though Barenboim felt the need to impose a particular view of Strauss which, while not absolutely invalid, for me doesn’t quite fit with what’s in the music.

A definite bonus, though, is the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which reaches a level of sumptuousness that the CBSO (on Andris Nelsons’ top-notch Orfeo recording) can’t quite match. The strings are particularly fine, for all that Barenboim plays around with them. They are agile and muscular in the opening statement of the Hero’s theme, and they provide a fantastic bed of sound against which the violin solo (beautifully played) can unfold in the Companion scene. The winds are nippy and biting in the depiction of the adversaries, and everything comes together in a brilliantly exciting Battle sequence.

So there is plenty to enjoy here, but this disc remains a record of a special occasion rather than a first choice for either work. There are umpteen excellent recordings of both in the catalogue. No-one will throw away their Schwarzkopf, Norman, Fleming or Janowitz in favour of Netrebko’s Last Songs, thought you might just allow Barenboim’s Heldenleben some space on your shelf next to Nelsons, Jansons, Karajan or, best of all, Reiner.

Simon Thompson

And another review...

The headline news is that Anna Netrebko and Daniel Barenboim come close to challenging the classic Four Last Songs recorded by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and George Szell. That said, the older version remains my benchmark (EMI Masters/Warner 0873812 at lower mid-price, with other songs – review of earlier reissue: Bargain of the Month).  Similarly, Fritz Reiner’s Heldenleben remains the prime choice for that work, although it’s now imprisoned in various RCA box sets, from 5 to 63 discs.  If you don’t wish to invest in any of these, Herbert von Karajan makes an excellent reserve choice (DG Karajan Gold E4390392 at mid-price, with Tod und Verklärung).

Anna Netrebko is clearly intended to be the attraction, with a cover shot of her wearing an absurdly over-the-top red dress trailing in the snow, and she opens the proceedings with the Four Last Songs.  She has already given us two Strauss songs on an earlier multi-lingual DG recital, Souvenirs (4777639 – review).  Margarida Mota-Bull, though enjoying that CD overall, thought her singing in Cäcilie a bit patchy but her Strauss credentials have clearly improved in the meantime.  The performances are so very good on their own terms that I decided not to try a Building a Library comparison with my favourite versions: Schwarzkopf (see above), Soile Isokoski (Ondine ODE9822) or Felicity Lott (Chandos CHAN10075X) except to put in a special word for the Chandos, now at super-budget price and offering an all-Strauss Lieder collection.

The performances of both the Four Last Songs and Heldenleben need to be listened to at least a couple of times before they gel.  I was actually a little disappointed with both at first hearing – see what I have said below on the recording for a possible explanation – but much more impressed second time around. 

Though the Four Last Songs are the star attraction, with delicacy and sensitivity the keynotes of the accompaniment, there’s plenty of oomph where it’s needed in the main work, but this Heldenleben is not just full of sound and fury, for which Wolfram Brandl’s sensitive handling of the violin part is in no small measure responsible.

Strauss conducted the Staatskapelle, then known as the Royal Prussian Court Orchestra, 1200 times and while it would be absurd to think that only orchestras with a historic link to a particular composer know how to play his music, special relationships can be important.  The Vienna Philharmonic have just demonstrated that again with Zubin Mehta’s assistance in the 2015 Neujahrskonzert: the Sony recording should be out by the time that you read this.

I listened to the CD-quality 16-bit download from prestoclassical.co.uk which offers a small but significant price advantage over the CD at £11.11.  They also offer mp3 (£8.89) and 24-bit, the latter, at £15.57, slightly more than you are likely to pay for the CD.

You will need to keep the volume up: I started by listening late at night, an ideal time to hear the Four Last Songs, but with the wick turned down so as not to disturb the neighbours, and found the performances and recording a little underwhelming.  No doubt the fact that these are live performances gives them an extra edge, but that doesn’t mean that the recording, at the right volume, is not first-rate, capturing the details of Strauss’s rich scoring in Heldenleben in glowing detail.  The audience is not obtrusive and there’s no applause.  There are, however, a few noises off from Daniel Barenboim if you listen with headphones.

If you download you will miss out on the de luxe version with hardback book, but you still get the lavishly illustrated booklet in pdf form.  Margarida Mota-Bull was somewhat put off by the ‘girlie’ nature of the Souvenirs booklet; I’m afraid the new one has lots of pink and Spring blossom, too.  On the positive side it contains the texts and translations and it’s good to have the booklet offered with the download – something for which my colleagues and I have been campaigning.

Overall this is one of the best releases of the Strauss year.  Even if you own one of the recordings that I have mentioned, it’s well worth having.  I can say that with all the more authority in that, remembering Netrebko’s singing of Morgen at the Proms some years ago, and having listened to samples, I purchased the recording myself rather than wait to bid for a review copy.  Die Welt described the concert as opening the classical music season mit einem verfrühten Weihnachtsgeschenk, an early Christmas present.  The recording will serve very nicely as what our Tudor ancestors used to call a handsel, a New Year’s present.

The only reason why I have not made this a Recording of the Month is that I shall also return to those other performances of both works that I listed.  I avoided doing a direct comparison between Netrebko and Schwarzkopf but couldn’t resist listening to Schwarzkopf immediately afterwards.

Brian Wilson