Sunday, November 15, 2015

Richard Strauss: "Music is a holy art," sings Strauss's Composer -- plus Two (out of Four) Last Songs, part 2

"Music is a holy art"
THE COMPOSER: Music is a holy art, which brings together all men of courage, like cherubim around a shining throne, and for this reason it is the holiest of the arts. Holy music!
-- from the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos

Sena Jurinac (s), Composer; Vienna Philharmonic, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-Decca, recorded 1958

Teresa Zylis-Gara (s), Composer; Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI, recorded June-July 1968

Agnes Giebel (ms), Composer; Vienna Philharmonic, James Levine, cond. DG, recorded January 1986

Anne Sofie von Otter (ms), Composer; Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. DG, recorded Sept. and Dec. 2000

by Ken

Last week, in part 1 of this post, our ongoing look-and-listen to Richard Strauss's favorite among his operas, and probably among his works, Ariadne auf Naxos, landed us at this passionate declaration by the idealistic young Composer in the Prologue created with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal for the revised 1916 version. And from there we detoured to the first two of Strauss's Four Last Songs, at least in the order devised by Strauss's publisher at Boosey and Hawkes, Ernst Roth, who took the posthumous publication of these songs in hand and included this note (in German, French, and English):
These four songs are not only Strauss's last contributions to the "Lied," which played such an important part in his life's work, but they are also the last compositions that he finished.

The first sketches of Im Abendrot (At Dusk) are found in a notebook from the end of 1946 or beginning of 1947. The final sketch of the score is dated "Montreux, 27th April 1948" and the score itself was finished on 6th May of that year.

The sketch of Frühling followed, with the full score completed at Pontresina on 18th July 1948.

Beim Schlafengehen (On Going to Sleep) was finished on 4th August and September, Strauss's last completed work, on 20th September of the same year.

A mood of farewell pervades the four songs, particularly Im Abendrot and September. It is, however, the farewell of a man who leaves the scene of earthly struggle and triumph without disappointment or reproach, without fear of destruction and doom, but with serene confidence in eternity and immortality. And so when the poet asks in Im Abendrot (bars 69-75) "Ist dies etwa Tod?" ("Can this be death?") the horn enters with that same Transfiguration motif which the young man 60 years before had set against Death.
The title Four Last Songs isn't Strauss's, of course. In fact, from among the poems of Hermann Hesse he had been considering (he flagged 14 in a collection he had been given), in addition to the three he completed setting -- "Frühling" ("Spring"), "September," and "Beim Schlafengehn" ("On Going to Bed") -- he began sketching a fourth, "Nacht" ("Night"), to go with a setting of Joseph Eichendorff's "Im Abendrot" ("At Dusk").


That was, as we can see from Roth's score note, less than five years after the last song was completed (and less than four years after the 85-year-old composer's death on September 8, 1949). This week, among a bunch of other recordings of these songs, we're going to hear one made just a few months later, and I think it's worth remembering how new these songs were at the time.

The Four Last Songs have been much-recorded, to put it mildly. Every soprano who can claw her way to a microphone has had a go at them, and many of them more than once. And that seemed to me an interesting principle of selection: the repeat recorders.

Instead of worrying about which version is "better," I'd like to listen for how different the pairs of performances are. Of course in a number of cases we're hearing singers at markedly different stages of their careers -- the dozen years that separate Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's recordings make for a substantially different singer. There are of course differences in the collaborators as well: The second time we hear Gundula Janowitz and Kiri Te Kanawa, for example, they're in the company of conductors out to make the most of the music's Technicolor orchestration -- an utterly legitimate choice. I think both the Janowitz-Karajan and the Te Kanawa-Solti versions are gorgeous.

But there also seems to be a sense in which singers (and also the one "repeat conductor" we'll be hearing) seem conscious of things they didn't do the first time, or would like to do differently -- which is a good thing, I think, since there would be hardly any point in having exactly the same performance from them. So let's listen to our serial Four Last Songs recordists.

In the interest of accuracy, I should note that Janowitz didn't actually make "two recordings." The earlier broadcast performance with Bernard Haitink wasn't released until long after she made the famous recording with Herbert von Karajan. I should also note that the performances of these two relatively "easy" songs don't wholly reflect the performances of the set as a whole. For example, with Andrew Davis, Kiri Te Kanawa in her first recording delivered a blockbuster of an "Im Abendrot."

That said, I think this is an interesting exercise.

R. STRAUSS: Four Last Songs:
i. "Frühling" ("Spring")

ii. "September"

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Ackermann, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 25, 1953

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, George Szell, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. 1-3, 1965

Kiri Te Kanawa

London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded c1978

Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded June 8-9, 1990

Renée Fleming

Houston Symphony Orchestra, Christoph von Eschenbach, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded 1995

Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, cond. Decca, recorded live, April 2008

Gundula Janowitz and Herbert von Karajan

Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Concertgebouw Orchestra, Bernard Haitink, cond. DG, recorded live, June 27, 1968

Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded Feb. 13-14, 1973

Anna Tomowa-Sintow, soprano; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded November 1985


As sung by vocally heftier sopranos, with not just extra vocal oomph but a richer and more complex vocal texture and a wider range of vocal expressive options, I think the songs can come out quite differently. Logical as it would be to start with Jessye Norman and Kurt Masur, from about the same period as the recording of Ariadne auf Naxos on which they collaborated, but I'm going to reserve them for when we (eventually) get around to the more extended third and fourth songs of the set.

I'm including Montserrat Caballé's version, not because I endorse it in all respects, but because that sumptuous voice with its kaleidoscope of vocal colors and textures affords such large possibilities. Leontyne Price's version, however, I can endorse in pretty much all respects -- I think it's pretty spectacular. Instead of teasing and torturing the vocal line, Price binds her expressive points into the vocal line.

R. STRAUSS: Four Last Songs:
i. "Frühling" ("Spring")
ii. "September"

Leontyne Price, soprano; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded July 1973

Montserrat Caballé, soprano; Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, Alain Lombard, cond. Erato, recorded September 1976


Performances of what we might call the fuss-'n'-muss school, where the primary goal seems to be to make sure we know we've been interpretized at. If we want an "intelligent" approach to the Four Last Songs, the Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström is a good singer to look to.

R. STRAUSS: Four Last Songs:
i. "Frühling" ("Spring")
ii. "September"

Elisabeth Söderström, soprano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Antal Dorati, cond. BBC Legends, recorded live, Oct. 3, 1976

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