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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life)* (1897-8)
Four Last Songs (1947/48)
Frühling (Spring)
SeptemberBeim Schlafengehen (Time to Sleep)
Im Abendrot (At sunset)
Arleen Augér soprano)
* Rainer Küchl (violin)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/André Previn
Recorded in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna in November 1988
TELARC CD-80180 [68:30]

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There have been many glorious recordings of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, his final and possibly his most exquisite celebration of the soprano voice, since their first performance by Kirsten Flagstad at London’s Royal Albert Hall in May 1950. These have included Janowitz, Jurinac, Schwarzkopf, Della Casa, Te Kanawa etc. This year another sublime performance was committed to disc by Soile Isokoski with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski on Ondine ODE982-2, a recording that narrowly missed my critic’s 2002 choice short list. (Janowski’s accompaniment features ravishing horn and fiddle solos in the ‘September’ and ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ songs respectively.) This reissue enters an intensely competitive field.

Augér’s beautiful timbre, her silken, seemingly effortless contouring of Strauss’s sinuous, sensual vocal lines and her affecting expressive singing make this a most distinguished reading, comparable with any of the performances identified above. Previn’s accompaniment is sympathetic. (Augér’s untimely death in 1993 when she was only in her early 50s was a tragic loss to music.)

Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben is not an easy work to bring off convincingly. I can only remember one interpretation of its pompous, overblown personal agenda that has persuaded me – well nearly – that of Celibidache with the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in a boxed set of his recordings of Richard Strauss works (DG 453 190-2).

Here Previn with the Vienna Philharmonic is not quite so successful. There is swagger for the opening portrait of the hero but Celibidache’s biting satire for the hero’s adversaries is missing, the hero’s helpmate is not quite so capricious or beguiling either. Previn’s battlefield is an exciting place and ultimately gloriously victorious but again it lacks the depth and realistic perspectives of the Stuttgart performance. Previn’s reading of the hero’s works of peace movement is reasonably successful avoiding a tendency towards banality that can trap less wary interpreters.   Augér beguiles in Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Previn turns in a very satisfactory reading of the flawed Ein Heldenleben.

Ian Lace and Grace Lace

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