Friday, 13 January 2017

Vier Letzte Lieder

There are some musical works that really get under your skin, and stay there. I have never been a great fan of Richard Strauss (a bit of an old windbag, for much of the time, in my opinion). But Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder have always been one of my “under the skin” works. Strangely enough, his sonata for violin and piano has always been another.

For something written in 1948, the Lieder have become extremely popular, and quite rightly so. A recent arrival in my collection occasioned a re-evaluation of what I liked. The recent arrival was Diana Damrau singing in September last year with the Bavarian State Orchestra conducted by Kirill Petrenko (an off-air recording). As a quick-check version, I also acquired Renée Fleming singing with the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann (2008). Somewhat remarkably for these works, the two Bavarian versions feature pretty well identical timings for the four songs – even for the fourth song whose timings can stretch from a languorous 9 minutes and 54 seconds (Jessye Norman, with Kurt Masur) to a rapidissimo 6 minutes and 23 seconds (Martina Arroyo, with Günter Wand). Miss Arroyo was not going to miss that last bus back to her hotel.

I listened to Damrau; I listened to Fleming. Immediately into my re-cycling bin went Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (with Szell), Jessye Norman (with Masur) and Soile Isokoski (with Marek Janowski). Lisa della Casa stays on my shelves for sentimental reasons. For me, the Lieder are, above all, a glorious outpouring of a soprano voice. The glorious soprano outpouring needs to be matched by a golden outpouring from the orchestra. The whole needs to be well recorded so we can bask in a golden musical Götterdämmerung. Damrau / Petrenko fill the bill. Fleming / Thielemann fill the bill. In the final run-off, however, it is Diana Damrau who gets the gold medal, since I have a strange problem with Renée Fleming's German diction. I, who am always castigating singers for not enunciating clearly, find that Fleming's clear and meticulous enunciation in several passages detracts from the impression of a glorious outpouring and leaves the music, on occasions, sounding cautious and calculated. So Damrau and Petrenko run off with the top prize. I don't expect them to be toppled for some considerable time.

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