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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), AV150 (Op. posth) (1948) (I. Frühling [3:32]; II. September [4:16]; III. Beim Schlafengehen [4:37]; IV. Im Abendrot [7:13])
Das Bächlein, Op. 88 No. 1 (written 1933, orch. 1935) [1:59]
Die heil'gen drei Könige aus Morgenland, Op. 56/6 (1906) [6:54]
Das Rosenband, Op. 36 No. 1 (1897) [3:28]
An die Nacht, Op.68/1 (written 1918, orch. 1940) [2:41]
Morgen!  Op.27/4 (written 1894, orch. 1897) [4:04]
Der Arbeitsmann, Op.39/3 (written 1898, orch. 1941) [3:22]
Traum durch die Dämmerung, Op. 29 No. 1 (1895) [3:10]
Mein Auge, Op. 37/4 (written 1898, orch. 1933) [2:27]
Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1 (written 1885, orch. 1933) [1:52]
Befreit, Op.39/4 (written 1898, orch. 1933) [5:51]
Des Dichters Abendgang, Op. 47/2 (written 1900, orch. 1918) [5:15]
Ich liebe dich, Op. 37/2 (written 1898, orch. 1943) [1:58]
Heather Harper (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Hickox
rec. 11-18 February 1986 and 21, 23, 27 July 1987, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, UK. No song texts provided
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 2283742 [63:11] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


What better way to spend a cold, crisp winter’s afternoon than basking in the warm glow of Strauss’s Four Last Songs? This music, of ineffable loveliness, has been recorded by some of the greatest voices of the past 60 years, among them Kirsten Flagstad, Lisa Della Casa, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (twice), Gundula Janowitz, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Arleen Augér, Lucia Popp, Felicity Lott, Soile Isokoski, Christine Brewer and Renée Fleming (also twice). All of these singers bring something special to this work and must surely be included in any Strauss collection worth the name.

Now we have the Irish-born soprano Heather Harper who, like Schwarzkopf and Fleming, has also recorded the piece twice; the first outing, with Norman del Mar, is now available – appropriately enough – on a collection entitled Desert Island Discs. Her partner here is the late Richard Hickox, whose untimely death in November 2008 left many wondering who will take up the baton for British music, which he championed for so long. At least this Strauss reissue – including a selection of the composer’s finest orchestral songs – reminds us that Hickox’s talents were more wide-ranging; indeed, I have indelible memories of his L’enfance du Christ from Cardiff a few years ago, which surely warrants a DVD release soon.

As for Harper, she has sung Wagner, Strauss and Britten, substituting for soprano Galina Vishnevskaya at the premiere of the War Requiem in 1962. She retired from the stage in 1984 but fortunately she continued to record for a while thereafter. I say fortunately because she went on to give us this enthralling Strauss disc, which had me listening so intently I lost all track of time and place.

For Strauss the Four Last Songs are the glorious culmination of what, towards the end, was perhaps a rather inglorious musical career. Whatever the facts of his relationship with the Nazis – dedicating Das Bächlein to Goebbels was particularly unhelpful – no-one can deny these songs also mark the very pinnacle of Romantic warmth and radiance. Essentially these poems – the first three by Hesse, the fourth by Eichendorff – sum up a life lived to the full, with approaching death calmly awaited. All the recordings I have mentioned are highly desirable, but then it’s an inexhaustible work that responds readily to many different interpretations.

Harper sings Frühling with a fullness of tone and smoothness of line, the LSO sounding suitably refulgent, too. There’s no sign of any vocal wear and tear, with Harper floating her high notes with astonishing ease and accuracy. What struck me immediately is that conductor, orchestra and soloist are working as one, the kind of alchemy that makes Schwarzkopf’s recording with Georg Szell so very special. That elusive chemistry is missing in Isokoski, Fleming and Brewer’s accounts; indeed, Marek Janowski (for Isokoski) is rather too brisk and matter of fact, although the Randfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin do bring some magical touches to this score.

On to the autumnal swirl of September, where I found myself warming to Harper’s generosity of spirit, which brings so much lift and joy to this song. Schwarzkopf is rather more inward here, but then she finds a rapt stillness that has never been matched. Meanwhile Harper’s glorious Augen zu and answering LSO horns are just ravishing.

Indeed, this CfP transfer of an Andrew Keener/Mike Clements original is exemplary; orchestra and soloist are ideally balanced, the Abbey Road studio sounding as warm and cultured as ever. Given that some of EMI’s early digital recordings were a little hard on the ear this is a very pleasant surprise. Nowhere are all these sonic advantages more apparent than in the dark prelude to Beim Schlafengehen; Harper’s response to the text is intelligent – intuitive, even – and the LSO strings and horns are just superb. I defy anyone not to be deeply moved by such wondrous music making.

But it’s Im abendrot that usually makes the most impact, and if magisterial singing is what you want here Norman and Price certainly fit the bill. From an orchestral point of view Szell and his Berlin radio band are without peer in this song, capturing the music’s ‘breathing’ quality throughout. That said, Hickox runs him close, drawing rich, sonorous sounds from the LSO. There is much detail here, too, and Harper’s voice takes on an ache, a tenderness, that is just spellbinding. Hickox responds to every nuance and flutter of this evanescent score, the soloist’s ist dies etwas der Tod? as thrilling as any I’ve ever heard. And if you think Szell’s postlude is magical, the LSO sound every bit as accomplished, even if they can’t quite match the radiance of Szell’s players.

Well, how do you follow that? An invidious task, yet one that Harper and Hickox manage very well indeed. This selection of orchestral songs – many written for voice and piano but later orchestrated for specific singers – was recorded a year earlier than the Four Last Songs. The sound is a touch brighter, but that hardly matters. Harper is admirably secure in Das Bächlein, the LSO as supportive, if not quite as sumptuous, as before. However the brooding prelude to the Christmas song Die heil'gen drei Könige aus Morgenland is magically done, crowned with horn playing to die for. Harper colours and shades her voice with considerable subtlety – the floated high notes assured as ever – and the Stygian rumble of the bass drum is very well caught.

I suspect the real hero is Richard Hickox, who never allows this music to sound overripe or overblown. Just listen to the Klopstock song Das Rosenband, with its skipping pizzicato strings and general lightness of tread. In fact, it’s an intelligently chosen programme, with enough contrast to keep one listening with rapt attention throughout. The Brentano setting An die Nacht is bigger boned and more vocally taxing for the soloist. Harper tackles the high notes with aplomb, the orchestra powerfully focused in the tuttis.

Morgen! is a much-prized gem in the Straussian treasure chest, eliciting some lovely playing from the LSO and suitably limpid singing from the soloist. It’s all most apt in this gentlest of songs, and very different from the sudden thrust and tension of Dehmel’s Der Arbeitsmann. This is Strauss in a darker vein, yet Harper easily makes herself heard above the stentorian climaxes.

The gently rocking phrases of Traum durch die Dämmerung are deftly articulated, as is Harper’s hushed singing. How refreshing it is to hear a voice that always sounds so well rounded and untroubled by unlovely vibrato. Just listen to her perfectly sustained singing at the close of this song and the ease with which she navigates the Dehmel setting, Mein Auge. Ditto that other Straussian staple, Zueignung, which Jessye Norman essays with thrilling amplitude and creaminess of tone. Harper is not far behind and, despite the slightly overenthusiastic orchestral response, she is as secure and powerful as ever.

Harper brings a wonderful sense of yearning to Befreit, where I found myself marvelling anew at her vocal dexterity and range. Indeed, I cannot find fault with her anywhere, such is the authority and sheer artistry on display here. And although Des Dichters Abendgang boasts some echt-Wagnerian horns and rippling figures it’s as Straussian a piece of orchestral writing as you’re likely to hear, not always subtle but undeniably sumptuous. To top it all soloist, conductor and orchestra throw everything into Ich liebe dich, which makes for an exhilarating coda to a most desirable disc.

Elsewhere on this page you’ll see a section entitled ‘How did I miss that?’, which rather sums up my response to this reissue. I’ve heard Harper is minor roles over the years but I’m ashamed to admit I had no idea she was such an accomplished and exciting soloist. As for Hickox and the LSO, they have done Strauss proud.

A must-hear and must-have for all Straussians.

Dan Morgan


 



 


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