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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), Op. posth. [20:19]
Wiegenlied (Cradle Song), Op.41/1 [4:25]
Ruhe, meine Seele! (Rest, My Soul!), Op.27/1 [4:13]
Freundliche Vision (Friendly Vision), Op.48/1 [2:47]
Waldseligkeit (Woodland Bliss), Op.49/1 [3:29]
Morgen! (Tomorrow!), Op.27/4 [4:02]
Das Rosenband (The Rose Garland), Op.36/1 (orch. Robert Heger) [3:09]
Zueignung (Dedication), Op.10/1 [1:47]
Des Dichters Abendgang (The Poet’s Evening Walk), Op.47/2 [5:04]
Capriccio, Op.85: Intermezzo (Moonlight Music) [3:21]; Closing Scene [16:00]
Felicity Lott (soprano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 10 November 1992; Caird Hall, Dundee, 8 December 1986 9 December 1986, 22 and 23 February 1988 and 16–18 August 1988. DDD
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as lossless download from

Das Rosenband (The Rose Garland), Op.36/1 [2:56]
Ich wollt ein Sträusslein binden (I intended to make a bouquet), Op.68/2 [3:31]
Säusle, liebe Myrte (Rustle, dear myrtle), Op.68/3 [4:53]
Als mir dein Lied erklang (As your song rang out to me), Op.68/4 [3:51]
Befreit (Set free), Op.39/4 [5:29]
Ruhe, meine Seele! (Rest, My Soul!), Op.27/1 [4:06]
Wiegenlied (Cradle Song), Op.41/1 [3:43]
Meinem Kinde (To my child) [2:45]
Zueignung (Dedication), Op.10/1 [1:35]
Morgen! (Tomorrow!), Op.27/4 [3:35]
Die heiligen drei Konige aus Morgenland (The three holy Kings from the East), Op.56/6 [6:09]
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), Op. posth. [20:51]
Soile Isokoski (soprano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Marek Janowski
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, July 2001. DDD
Texts and translations included
ONDINE ODE9822 [64:24]

Reviewing the recording of Four Last Songs (DG 4793964: Anna Netrebko/Daniel Barenboim, with Heldenleben) I mentioned a number of alternatives. Prime among these was the classic and still unsurpassed recording made by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and George Szell (EMI/Warner 0873812) but I also mentioned Felicity Lott at budget price and Soile Isokoski, both with other Strauss Lieder. As we had never actually reviewed either of these, though I had written in approving terms of Isokoski when I reviewed the last-but-one reissue of the Schwarzkopf, the Classical Editor, suggested that I might wish to do so.

The Chandos recording was one of a series of Strauss recordings which Felicity Lott and Neeme Järvi made in the mid-to-late nineteen-eighties. When it first appeared in 1987 the Four Last Songs were coupled, as on the new DG recording, with Ein Heldenleben but the reissue is more logical and desirable. At the time the main comparison was with Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Herbert von Karajan (DG, now on a mid-price 2-CD set, E4742812 with Alpensinfonie) but Felicity Lott can more than hold her own against the competition; these performances are among the most delicate that I’ve heard and while the SNO can’t quite match the Berlin Phil, Neeme Järvi’s direction is thoroughly sympathetic. If, for any reason, the similar Schwarzkopf programme doesn’t appeal, the Chandos can be yours for around £6.50.

By one of those hard-to-fathom paradoxes, though the mp3 download from is less expensive (£4.99), you will pay more for the CD-quality 16-bit lossless download (£7.99) than for the CD. There’s also a 24-bit version, but it seems to be an up-rated version of the original 16-bit, so I listened to the latter, which sounds very well. Even the slight over-reverberation of the Caird Hall seems to have been considerably tamed; at any rate I didn’t find it troublesome. Though this is an inexpensive reissue, the booklet is up to Chandos’s usual high standard and it’s included with all versions of the download.

Soile Isokoski has made three recordings of the music of Richard Strauss: the others are with Mariita Viitasalo (ODE1182: Recording of the Month – review), including the versions with piano of several of the songs included in orchestral garb on ODE9822 and with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Okko Kamu on which the main work is the Three Hymns, Op.71 (ODE12022: a ‘disc not to be missed’ – review).

Reviewing the Schwarzkopf/Szell recording, having played her version of Morgen!, I came to the conclusion that nothing could match her until I tried Isokoski and began to think the unthinkable — that there was very little to choose between them. Isokoski and Janowski are a little faster – 3:35 against Schwarzkopf and Szell’s 3:50 – without sounding at all rushed. In the Four Last Songs, Isokoski’s tempi are consistently a shade or two faster than those of Schwarzkopf/Szell and closer to those of Schwarzkopf’s earlier recording with Ackerman. I know that some believe that Isokoski takes these, especially the last two songs, too fast, but I don’t: with the exception of Frühling, her timings fall almost exactly half way between those of Schwarzkopf’s two recordings.

Isokoski captures the mood of the final stanza of Beim Schlafengehen as ethereally as Schwarzkopf or Lucia Popp with the LPO and Klaus Tennstedt on another classic recording which I’m pleased to see has resurfaced at budget price (EMI Red Line 6023172, with the closing scene of Daphne and twelve Lieder). 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 – by my favourite German Romantic poet, Eichendorff – sometimes become lost. That applies to just about every one of my comparisons: the mood at the end is hardly conducive to clear diction.

Though lyricism is the keynote of Isokoski’s singing she also copes splendidly with the Wagnerian intensity of Ruhe, meine Seele! (track 6) and she is well supported throughout. Try the contrast between soloist and orchestra on that track and in Wiegenlied on the next.

If you took my advice in the Schwarzkopf review and downloaded the Isokoski recording from without booklet, it may be small consolation to know that they now provide it. Subscribers to their sister streaming site Naxos Music Library can obtain it from there. It’s every bit as good as the booklet from Chandos and the new DG.

Schwarzkopf and Lott open proceedings with the Four Last Songs, as does Netrebko on the new DG. That’s fine when the Netrebko performance is followed by Ein Heldenleben but in a collection of Lieder I much prefer to end with the Four Last Songs as Isokoski does. The earlier (1953) Schwarzkopf recording with the Philharmonia and Otto Ackermann, which some prefer even to the remake with Szell, also opens with the Four Last Songs (budget-price Naxos Historical mono 8.111145: Bargain of the Month – review – with excerpts from Arabella).

In the final analysis I still place Schwarzkopf and Szell top of my list and it comes at lower mid-price. Even so, all the others which I have mentioned have strong points in their favour: the sheer lyrical beauty of Isokoski, the delicacy of Lott, also attractively priced, and the sensitivity of both Netrebko and the accompaniment which she receives from the Berlin Staatskapelle and Barenboim. Though it’s the oldest recording, apart from the Naxos Historical, the EMI/Warner still sounds very well but you won’t feel let down by any of the others.

Brian Wilson


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