|Richard Strauss: VIER LETZTE LIEDER|
Richard Strauss' "VIER LETZTE LIEDER" (FOUR LAST SONGS) are musical masterpieces. Their stunningly lush lyricism reaffirms the glories of tonality, a style Strauss often abandoned, proving that he could still find new music in diatonic and chromatic styles. Strauss was a quixotic composer, juxtaposing pages of sublimely beautiful music with pages of incomprehensible banality often with dissonant tonalities. Not so with these songs. They are perfect, from first measure to last, representing Strauss' creative leave-taking expressed in the beauty of the soprano voice.
As he awaited de-Nazification proceedings, Strauss' last years in self-imposed exile in Switzerland were not happy ones. He was depressed about all the death and destruction he saw around him; every opera house that he had conducted in was in ruins. He was despondent about the allegations against him and although the military tribunal cleared him of all charges, he felt that he had nothing more to say as a composer. Except for this final flowering of song, Strauss' last years produced nothing of merit; most of what he attempted was left unfinished. His love affair with German Romantic Lied began early in his career and it is indeed fitting that he culminated it with these songs at its end.
In 1946, he read Joseph von Eichendorff's poem "At Sunset," and immediately found himself taken with its autumnal serenity. Strauss was an old man of 82, and in failing health, and when he read Eichendorff's poem about an elderly couple looking towards the sunset, weary of traveling, and asking, "Is that perhaps death?" he could clearly draw a parallel with himself and his wife Pauline. He set the poem for soprano and large orchestra, completing it in Montreux in May of 1948.
Taking a subtle liberty, Strauss changed the final line of Eichendorff's text to "Is this perhaps death?" and at the reference to "death", he quotes the theme of the hero's ideal from his 1889 tone poem "Tod und Verklärung." Strauss often quoted from himself, and this self-quote in "Im Abendrot" may appear self-indulgent but the mood of the music justifies it completely, a master stroke from a master craftsman.
About the same time, Strauss was given a book of poems by Hermann Hesse, three of which evoked a valedictory tone similar to that of "Im Abendrot," and in 1948, he set them as companions to the Eichendorff poem, also with orchestral accompaniments, completing "Frühling" on July 18, "Beim Schlafengehn" on August 4, both in Pontresina, and "September" on September 20, in Montreux. When Strauss wrote to Flagstad in May of 1949 suggesting she sing the premiere, he himself called them his "4 (not 'Four') Last Songs." Written with the orchestra in mind, they represent a perfect fusion of voice and orchestral texture as none of his other orchestrated songs do.
Actually, there was a fifth song that Strauss wrote in November 1948 - "Malven" ("Hollyhocks") - with piano accompaniment; it was never orchestrated. He dedicated it to Maria Jeritza (Seery), and he sent her the unpublished manuscript in March 1949. She kept it secret and it remained hidden and unheard until after her death in 1982, when her estate finally released it. One can only speculate why Jeritza kept it secret. There is no record that Strauss asked her to, but she knew Pauline's intense jealousy when it came to other women in Strauss' life, and perhaps she felt it best not to mention it, though after Pauline's death in 1950 there were no reasons to keep it secret other than selfish ones.
Kiri Te Kanawa sang it for the first time in 1985 and recorded it on her second recording of the FOUR LAST SONGS in 1990, with Solti, who supplied the piano accompaniment. Listening to it, one is surprised by the fact that it possesses none of the delicate lyricism that is present in any of the FOUR LAST SONGS. Based on a repeated three-note pattern, this short song (3:11) is set to a text by Betty Wehrli-Knobel, similar in spirit to Hesse's poems. It was perhaps hastily written but I think it best that Strauss got rid of it to Jeritza and didn't orchestrate it. It contains jarring harmonic progressions and an unmemorable vocal line. Perhaps Solti is responsible for the pervasive restlessness about it but it but it would have been at odds with the FOUR LAST SONGS. The last piece of music that Strauss wrote is incredibly ordinary.
Strauss died on September 8, 1949 and did not live to hear the world premiere of these songs, nor did Pauline, who died May 13, 1950, nine days before the world premiere. Kirsten Flagstad and Wilhelm Furtwängler presented them for first time in London on May 22, 1950 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Albert Hall. A recording exists, but it is thought to be a recording of the final dress rehearsal and not the actual premiere.
Edwin McArthur, Flagstad's accompanist and biographer, wrote that Strauss chose Flagstad to sing the premiere, and that Strauss insisted on a "first-class conductor". The choice of Furtwängler to conduct the world premiere was undoubtedly Flagstad's because she admired him more than any other conductor. He definitely would not have been Strauss' first choice. The songs were first sung in the order "Beim Schlafengehn," "September," "Frühling," and "Im Abendrot" (and on occasion, they are still performed or recorded in this curious order). I have yet to read anything that explains why, except that this order allows the soprano to warm up before the very difficult "Frühling,". When they were published in 1950, Ernest Roth, Strauss' London publisher, put them in the more programmatic order that we usually hear them today: "Frühling," "September," "Beim Schlafengehn," and "Im Abendrot."
The majority of Strauss' vocal music was written for the soprano voice, and there is ample proof that what Strauss wrote he wrote with his wife Pauline de Ahna's voice and technique in mind - long phrases that she was able to sing without taking a breath. Such is the case in the FOUR LAST SONGS, and it is perhaps why conductors take so many ritardandos in these songs, which allow additional breathing spaces for the soprano, and why criticisms are leveled at Strauss' vocal music as being poorly written because it was written for a soprano voice, not for the soprano voice. "Frühling," is very difficult, with a challenging high A-sharp, followed two notes later by an even more challenging high B. (Flagstad substituted a lower G at the world premiere and Schwarzkopf transposed the entire song a semitone down when she recorded it for the second time with Szell). While "Frühling," and "Beim Schlafengehn" are high, "September" and "Im Abendrot" are low, descending to D-flat. The soprano needs a bottom voice that can project these low notes, something most soprano voices have difficulty doing. Resorting to chest voice here is simply not an option, so phrases like "augen zu" in "September" can be almost inaudible.
There have been an unusually large number of commercial recordings made of the FOUR LAST SONGS, and a number of live performances are also available. Popp, and Te Kanawa have recorded them twice, Schwarzkopf three times. There is one dumb recording with piano accompaniment instead of orchestra, with Barbara Bonney. What where these fools thinking? All of those listed below have their problems in one way or another; the perfect recording of these songs still remains elusive.
Crucial to a successful performance of the FOUR LAST SONGS are the choices of tempi. Several of the recordings listed below are less than ideal not because of the singing but because the conductors chose tempi that are at odds with the spirit and character of these songs, either too fast, or overly measured. Slow, broad tempi, with an artificial sense of solemnity, accentuating tearful sentimentality that Strauss sought to avoid are especially egregious. Their character is one of autumnal serenity, not funereal pathos.
"Frühling" is marked Allegretto, and because this tempo should be faster than an Andante (the tempo of the other three songs), conductors should recognize its bright, cheerful character yet avoid racing through in a fashion that leaves the listener as breathless as the soloist. Nonetheless, though there are a couple of conductors listed below who can't even invest "Frühling" with the energy it requires. This is the most difficult song to get right. There are a number of interpretations for an Andante, (literally 'walking') but it should not be confused with an Adagio. One or more of the three songs that follow "Frühling" are often taken at such a slow tempo that they simply fall apart, and "Im Abendrot" is invariably saddled with such majestically solemn, broad tempi that it all but puts the listener to sleep. Here again though, there are several conductors listed below who even race through "Im Abendrot."
The recordings to be discussed and the timings for the individual songs are:
The various timings are interesting to compare:
As is apparent, there is a considerable difference of opinion regarding tempi. In any musical performance, degrees of speed are highly personal, and certain conductors prefer tempi that are consistently slow (Karajan, Eschenbach), while others prefer tempi that are faster (Solti, Leinsdorf, Böhm). The point is that there can be an "ideal" tempi for certain things, often dictated by the mood or compositional flow of the music, or the musicians ability to perform it, and those conductors that don't wish to find that "ideal" tempo obviously have personal interpretive reasons for not doing so. Clearly, the conductor's primary responsibility is to understand the character of the music he or she is conducting and set the tempo to reflect that character. Three of the above conductors, for instance, take exactly 5:19 to do "Beim Schlafengehn," and several others are very close to this, so one must question why Masur, Karajan and Tennstedt take over 6 minutes to do the same song. I can't understand what (maybe who?) caused Masur to take 9:54 to do "Im Abendrot" with Norman, but 7:17 with Voigt.
1. Auger/Previn, (1988). Arleen Auger's glistening soprano might not be as dramatic as some of the others being considered here, but her pure, clean vocalism and intuitive musicianship more than make up for it. Her early death deprived us of a talented singer whose musicianship and technique were impeccable. Auger sings beautifully, if a bit introspectively, but nothing is forced or overblown and the high B is solid. This is the only recording to blend the soprano voice with the orchestral texture, as another instrument rather than compete it against it (something Strauss preferred). Everything she does here is beautifully done. Previn's tempi are consistently more measured than they need to be but the glorious Vienna Philharmonic - so at home in the music of Strauss - gives Auger impeccable support. Their stunning virtuosity is on continuous display. I like this recording but wish Previn's tempi were a bit more energized. It is in the top four.
2. Caballé/Lombard, (1976). Montserrat Caballé sang the FOUR LAST SONGS on occasion. She had a sizeable instrument when she wanted to open it up, though it could have a hard edge to it at times, and her ability to sing incredibly soft, floated pianissimi (considered fake by many) and long phrases without taking a breath would seem to make her the ideal performer for this music. It is not the case here. Her eccentric way of producing sound ruins her efforts. She plays with too many of the notes, half-singing many of them, sliding up to and crooning many others. Her high B is excellent but very overblown in "Frühling," as is much of her singing. She was closely miked while the orchestra is very much in the background and not miked well at all. "Frühling" is spiritless in Lombard's hands, as is "Im Abendrot," taken at a lugubrious 9:16 but the other two songs are well paced. This recording is best avoided.
3. Della Casa/Böhm, (1953). This was the first commercial recording of the FOUR LAST SONGS, with Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, in mono, coming only three years after the world premiere. The order of the songs was as it was at the premiere, with "Beim Schlafengehn" being first. Lisa Della Casa's youthful timbre and clean vocalism was ideal for Mozart and some Strauss but it was never as large as it needed to be, and while her work is very good, one is aware that she doesn't have enough voice for these songs. Böhm prefers very fast tempi - some of the fastest - that don't really work, robbing this music of its inherent lyricism and only "Beim Schlafengehn" is realistically paced. The recording has a 50-ish sound with the voice being very prominent. I find it strange that Böhm, known for his attraction to Strauss, never recorded them again in stereo. Leave this at Tower Records.
4. Eaglen/Runnicles, (1999). Jane Eaglen - today's reigning Wagnerian soprano - continues to be widely criticized for much of her work, as she was for this recording of the FOUR LAST SONGS. The pinched, shrillness that often affects her top voice is only occasionally evident here, but there is an intrusive vibrato (almost a wobble) that mars many phrases. Yet, her musicianship is very good and her voice possesses an ineffable human, endearing quality to it. There is some superb vocalism here. An excellent high B, in "Frühling," beautiful shading at "tut er die müdgewordnen" in "September," and the 15 bars that conclude "Beim Schlafengehn" are beautifully vocalized. Her bottom voice handles the low notes easily. "So tief im Abendrot" is somewhat dramatic, but it is an interpretive affect that I like. The London Symphony plays well under Runnicles, whose support is solid, but he needs to flesh out a great many more orchestral details than he does. "September" is a bit expansive but otherwise Runnicles' tempi are excellent - particularly for "Im Abendrot" which has an ebb and flow of quite resignation to it. Even with the wobble, this recording is in the top four.
5. Flagstad/Furtwängler, (1950). Kirsten Flagstad in 1950 wasn't as freely voiced as she was in 1940, yet her vocalism here is nonetheless full-throated, with all of her endearing vocal traits and superb musicianship. In truth, there has never been such a magnificent voice as this. She sounds uncomfortable in "Frühling," and she sings a lower G instead of the high B, and she sings a C instead of a B natural on "Tritt" at bar 46 in "Im Abendrot." But her ability to caress words is spectacular and her "zu leben" in "Beim Schlafengehn" is exquisite. Alas, Furtwängler was in a hurry. "Frühling," is incredibly fast and driven and his tempi in the other songs are also brisk, except for "Im Abendrot" which he paces beautifully. Flagstad sang these songs on a couple of other occasions but always omitted "Frühling," Certainly worth hearing for Flagstad's incomparable sound but this recording has only limited appeal.
6. Fleming/Eschenbach, (1995). Pretentious music-making at its worst. Both of these 'legends-in-their-own-minds' turn out a horrid performance. While Fleming can deliver some lovely vocalism, particularly some exquisitely floated A's; her sound tends to spread on occasion, with a hollow quality in her upper voice that she has resolutely refused to fix (beautifully demonstrated on the G in "So tief im Abendrot"). She adds a number of odd sounds to vowels and pitch is sometimes wayward. She sounds bored. Most egregious of all is the ever-boring, ever third-rate Eschenbach. Apparently he thinks Andante means Largo. His pacing for all four songs is excruciatingly slow, with "September" being particularly lifeless at 5:29. This recording contributes nothing to our understanding of these songs. It is a total misfire and best avoided.
7. Hendricks/Swallisch, (1994). Barbara Hendricks has nowhere near enough voice for these songs, there is no bottom voice to speak of, and her fluttery vibrato is intrusive. Swallisch is metronomic throughout and rushes phrases that should be allowed to breathe. The sound favors the singer and is otherwise string-heavy. Another misfire.
8. Janowitz/Karajan, (1973). The problem with this performance is Karajan's uneven, eccentric, tempi, demonstrating an arrogance that marred a great deal of his work. The first three songs are saddled with overly expansive, sluggish tempi that simply rob them of life (it takes him 6:18 to get through "Beim Schlafengehn") but "Im Abendrot" is on the fast side, the opening taken at breakneck speed, but he must slow down at bar 20 for the soprano's entrance, a common mistake. Gundula Janowitz sings quite well throughout, though her sound is far from pure and there is a hollow quality to it. Some of the big notes are very overblown. Not a misfire due to the wealth of orchestral detail that one hears, along with the beautiful playing by the Berlin Philharmonic, but this is a highly eccentric reading that is far too frustrating for me to enjoy.
9. Kanawa/A. Davis. (1978). Kiri Te Kanawa sings well enough here, soaring easily up to the high A's and the high B in "Frühling," but her bottom voice is fuzzy or non-existent, and overall these performances are lifeless, without much spirit. Andrew Davis' tempi are satisfactory except for "Frühling" which is overly brisk. But as is the case with him, he is much too cerebral and just not very exciting, much less passionate. His work is incredibly dull. Kanawa's voice is placed very forward, and the orchestra is not well miked. Te Kanawa fans have long considered this recording one of her best, but I don't.
10. Kanawa/Solti. (1990). This was Kiri Te Kanawa's second recording of these songs and I find it an improvement over her 1978 recording. Her voice here seems fuller, that raspy quality her sound often had is all but gone, but her bottom voice is still non-existent. Despite a few straight tones, she is captured in glorious, poised, mature voice. She displays excellent vocalism, and one can hear the influences of a 'first class' conductor on her work. She plays with many phrases effectively, softening them, adding color and interesting shading. Solti is the problem. He paces the first three songs nicely but races through "Im Abendrot" as if he were on fire. Even then, he is in one of his impatient, agitated, driven moods that were common with him. "Im Abendrot" in particular is taken at such a breakneck speed that it is utterly ruined. He does observe a number of Strauss' markings in the score, and is considerate of Te Kanawa, slackening his relentless pace somewhat when she is singing, but he just refuses to let this music breathe. The Vienna Philharmonic plays magnificently in spite of him. A very driven, highly charged, virtuoso performance that is anything but "autumnal" in feeling. This recording could have been definitive but in reality is very disappointing, one that I can't enjoy. The novelty of it is that it contains the first recording of "Malven."
11. Mattila/Abbado, (1998). Karita Mattila's performances here are acceptable, but not as cleanly vocalized as they could be, and if the instrument is a great one (I don't hear it), the technique is not. She does many odd things: an annoying hint of straight tone on too many notes; too much pressure on the high notes that causes them to widen and loose focus; German that is fractured; a hesitancy to hit notes squarely. While I usually like generous amounts of portamento, hers sounds calculated. She hooks the G in "So tief im Abendrot," re-vocalizing the E-flat before it. Odd. Yet, she produces some lovely sound in all four songs, lifting beautifully into the B in "Frühling," and she floats some lovely A's and G's. She changes the text dramatically on the low "Augen zu" at the end of "September" to be able to vocalize it, but even then it is all but inaudible. Abbado offers superb support but his tempi are on the slow side. He scrupulously observes Strauss' markings and he doesn't over-do the fortes. The Berlin Philharmonic plays beautifully for him. The crescendo before "So tief im Abendrot" is marvelous. These performances should have been much better than they are. I found them disappointing.
12. Norman/Masur, (1982). Jessye Norman was always a singer in search of a voice and a technique and never seemed to find either. Her recording of the FOUR LAST SONGS is dismal, displaying vocalism that is hollow sounding, or shrill, and overblown with a shaky vibrato. Her top spreads and is thin on the high B and there is no bottom voice to speak of. Her "So tief im Abendrot" is very slow, but sung quietly with a correct sense of resignation. I wish the rest of her work here were as good. Just as Solti is unrelentingly driven, Masur is unrelentingly slow and lifeless. This dreary affair is a misfire.
13. Popp/Tennstedt, (1982). Lucia Popp also died much too young, and as with Auger, we lost a singer of superb musicianship. Hers was a lovely instrument, with its crystalline sheen and focus, and she produced some exquisite recordings. This is one of them. A few high notes seem to spread and lose focus. There is the occasional straight tone and her vibrato was always on the fast side but none of this mars her performance. Again, the problem I have with this recording is the deadly slow tempi. Tennstedt breathes no life into this vibrant music. His readings are measured and colorless. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra plays well enough, but there is an occasional raggedness to their work, possibly due to the slow tempi. This performance is certainly worth hearing for Popp's radiant vocalism but Tennstedt's work is very disappointing. It's not one of my favorites.
14. Price/Leinsdorf, (1973). For me, Leontyne Price was always a difficult singer to enjoy. The best part of her voice was her top, with its beautiful, shimmering focus. Her rich middle voice was always compromised by strange vocal mannerisms, sometimes croony, blousy vocalism, and a peculiar vibrato. She possessed the ugliest bottom voice of any singer I can name. These performances are undistinguished, though her high B in "Frühling" is magnificent. Price sounds uncomfortable with these songs, perhaps due to Leinsdorf's superficial support and of course the higher songs fare better than the lower ones. Leinsdorf was mostly a hack, and always preferred faster tempi while his interpretive abilities were lack-luster. "Beim Schlafengehn" is very hurried while "Im Abendrot" is bland. A ho-hum, rather ordinary performance, for Price fans exclusively.
15. Schwarzkopf/Ackermann, (1953). Elizabeth Schwarzkopf recorded the "Vier letzte Lieder" three times; this is her first recording and is in monophonic sound. Her voice was in fresher, freer shape in 1953 than it would be in later years. Her sound always had it peculiarities, sometimes thin, pinched and shrill. Yet, she does some wonderful work here, and her vocal mannerisms are not as pervasive as they would become later. "Frühling" is a bit of a challenge for her, as is the high B but she grabs it and hangs on. It is sung in the correct key. She gives us some lovely portamenti in "September," great attention to the text, and the final "zu" is almost whispered as the French horn begins the concluding measures. She does her best singing in "Beim Schlafengehn," with an impressive and beautiful B-flat on the final phrase. I don't like Ackermann's brisk tempi for the first three songs, but he paces "Im Abendrot" superbly, and Schwarzkopf sings "So tief im Abendrot" gorgeously, with a nice portamento from the G. The Philharmonia Orchestra plays very well but is distant. In spite of the dated mono sound, brisk tempi for the first three songs, and Schwarzkopf's eccentric vocalism, I enjoy this performance and put it in the top four.
16. Schwarzkopf/Szell, (1966). Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's third recording of the FOUR LAST SONGS was the first to be issued in stereophonic sound. As such, it became a definitive recording from the outset and is still considered in those terms by its many admirers. Her performances here are pretty grim. By 1966, Schwarzkopf's sound was riddled with technical difficulties and her curdled vocalism was often challenging to listen to. She has to continually husband her resources here, produces exaggerated vowel sounds, and displays a hooty, pinched tone throughout. "Frühling" is taken a half-step down due no doubt to her inability to handle the high B, but it's inexcusable, and why Szell of all people permitted this is a mystery, probably at the insistence of Walter Legge, the producer and Schwarzkopf's husband. In spite of the awful vocalism, Schwarzkopf brings intuitive insight to much of the text and shades words incredibly well, as one would expect from someone so experienced in the German Romantic Lied. The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra plays very well under Szell, and his tempi are on the slow side, particularly "September" which is as slow as Tenndstedt's, but "Beim Schlafengehn" is nicely paced. If one can stand Schwarzkopf's eccentric vocalism, a lugubrious "September" and the wrong key for "Frühling," this performance has a certain degree of appeal, but not to me.
17. Studer/Sinopoli, (1993). Cheryl Studer never possessed the world's most beautiful instrument, nor did she use it well and her squally, often-erratic, often wobbly vocalism kept her popularity at modest levels. However, she is in good voice here, and tries very hard to make a beautiful sound. Most of the time she does. Her high B in "Frühling" is good, if a bit pinched, but the ending of "September" is exquisite, softly as indicated, the 9 bar conclusion beginning "langsam tut er die müdgeworden" is beautifully shaded and sweetly sung, but the concluding "augen zu" challenges her poor bottom voice. Giuseppe Sinopoli - not a favorite of mine due to his often very erratic tempi - chooses them brilliantly here. For me, his tempi are perfect and the Staatskapelle Dresden - an orchestra not to be underestimated - has a marvelously sweet tone and plays superbly. The engineers put Studer in your face; it's a pity the recording was not balanced better. I can't say that I really like Studer's sound, but this is a surprisingly good performance, and thanks to Sinopoli it belongs in the top four, joining Auger, Eaglen and Schwarzkopf/Ackermann.
18. Voigt/Masur, (1999). This commercial recording was taken from a live performance in New York. Voigt sings well enough, making some beautiful sounds, as she always does, but the result is dull and uninvolved, as it always is. She sounds uncomfortable in these songs, especially in "Frühling," and her high B seems tentative. Masur's tempi are more respectable here than they were for Norman, though he still prefers slower tempi for "September" and "Beim Schlafengehn" but not for "Im Abendrot" which is a bit brisk. Hardly definitive.
So, for my money from the list I've sampled, Auger, Eaglen and Schwarzkopf/Ackermann take top honors, with Studer an interesting alternative, mainly for the conducting. Flagstad, Popp and Te Kanawa/Solti are also worthy of hearing for the vocalism, not the conducting. And I need to hear Popp/Tilson Thomas, and Tomowa-Sintow/Karajan.
In the meantime, we wait for that elusive, perfect recording where vocalism, tempi, interpretive awareness and balance come together to form performances that are definitive. It is certainly possible; a few of the above came close. There are many younger sopranos and just as many conductors probably anxious to add these songs to their respective repertoires. One doesn't need to be an expert with Strauss, just understand the unique character of these songs and perform them accordingly. Time will tell. It's a never-ending and adventurous quest to hear a new performance of these songs. Every time I hear one, I learn something new, or hear something not previously discovered. Their deceptive simplicity would seem to preclude further discovery but in this lays their unparalleled greatness. For me, and for many, Strauss' "Vier letzte Lieder" are timeless masterpieces that never seem to lose their fascination, addiction or magic. I can't imagine this world without them. P13
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