Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Four Last Songs. 12 Orchestral Songs. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano); George Szell conducting the Radio Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin and the London Symphony Orchestra
EMI 5 66908 2


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Occasionally reviewers are sent an album which quite simply awes them. This is such a disc. At the time of its original release Gramophone's critic wrote: "...a heavenly record, so beautiful that it goes against the grain to analyse

it." Exaggeration? Not a bit of it. This record is truly a masterpiece: a great meeting of extraordinary talents - the consummate artistry of Schwarzkopf and the glorious accompaniments of Szell, so often criticised for bing cold and aloof in performance, here inspiring the two orchestras to heights of breathtaking beauty in this opulent music. This CD truly deserves to be labelled a Great Recording of the Century.

This was the second recording that Schwarzkopf had made of the Four Last Songs The first had been with Otto Ackerman and the Philharmonia in 1953 - by 1949, after years of light lyric soprano roles such as Zerbinetta, Schwarzkopf had developed fuller tones sufficiently to suit the work. As John B. Steane, the eminent Gramophone critic, remarks in his eloquent notes "... the two performances are complementary, one does not have to choose between the freshness of the one and the experience of the other. (The first performance of the work, at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, in May 1950 had been not by a lyric soprano but by the mighty Wagnerian Kirsten Flagstad under Furtwängler.). In speaking about Schwarzkopf's performance at the Royal Festival Hall a few days after this 1965 recording of the Four Last Songs, Steane continues, "Schwarzkopf, whose conductor was Barbirolli, sounded essentially as in the Szell recording, a warm radiance in the tone, ample resources to make the voice sound out clearly and yet to meld with the instruments, and a deep humanity in all."

Strauss completed his late, lovely masterpiece, the Four Last Songs between May and September 1948. A fifth song was started but not finished. Sadly, barely a year later, the composer died without ever hearing them in performance.  Throughout his life Strauss had shown a distinct penchant for the soprano voice - one only has to recollect the three magnificent but demanding soprano roles in Der Rosenkavalier for instance. It is therefore fitting that this sublime last work with its fine vocal writing and opulent orchestrations (with glorious string parts), should be given to the soprano. The songs, sad but serene, suggest journeyings: through the day, through the seasons and through life. There are so many joys in this recording. I would just single out a few before I pass onto the 12 songs. Clearly Schwarzkopf's lovely silken tone; her effortless, seamless, floating, soaring singing that follows the winged spirit in "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going To Sleep) [and of course throughout all the four songs] is wondrous to hear. Then there is the lovely horn solo over softly caressing strings that closes "September" on an exquisite note of departing sadness for the departure of Summer; the melting beauty of the violin solo that distinguishes "Beim Schlafengehen"; and just everything in the haunting "Im Abendrot" (At Gloaming) - if music can be called heavenly then this is it! The closing orchestral pages are truly magical.

Strauss's 12 songs here recorded were written between 1897 and 1948. All are memorable and impressive. They are quite varied and give Schwarzkopf opportunities to show off her technique and considerable expressive powers, and Szell the opportunity to provide equally persuasive and glowing accompaniments. The most famous, perhaps, and the most beguiling are "Morgen" (Tomorrow) heartrendingly beautiful (again with a beautifully conceived violin solo over flowing harp arpeggios); and the sublime little lullaby, "Wiegenlied" (Cradle Song). To mention one or two of the other songs: the contrasting "Muttertändelei" (Tantalizing) is a light, wryly humorous look at motherhood with Schwarzkopf cooing, proudly and possessively over her new baby with the orchestra taking a more realistically ironic view of her exaggerated affections/affectations. "Die helligen drei Könige aus Morgenland" (The Three Holy Kings from the Orient) is Strauss' Nativity celebration which captures all the wonder of the star of Bethlehem, the closing orchestral pages shimmer gloriously; the string writing is bewitching but then the string writing (and playing) for all these songs is particularly rich. "Ruhe, meine Seele" (written in 1948) seems to forecast Strauss's imminent death. It is shadowy, brooding and foreboding and Schwarzkopf and Szell penetrate its dark soul.

In passing I would just like to draw attention to another very good recording of these works - that by in 1978 for CBS Masterworks by Kiri te Kanawa with Andrew Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.

But rush out and buy this great reissue.

Ian Lace