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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ständchen, op.17 no.2 (1887) [2:32]
Leises Lied, op.39 no.1 (1898) [2:59]
Wiegenliedchen, op.49 no.3 (1901) [2:23]
Rote Rosen (1880) [2:09]
Die Erwachte Rose (1883) [3:00]
Malven, AV304 (1948) [2:57]
Mädchenblumen, op.22 (1888) [8:46]
Fünf Lieder, op.48 (1900) [11:14]
Schlagende Herzen, op.29 no.2 (1895) [1:34]
Muttertänderlei, op.43 no.2 (1899) [2:36]
Das Bächlein, op.88 no.1 [1:20]
Amor, op.68 no.5 (1918) [3:34]
Kleine Lieder, op.69 nos.1-3 (1918) [7:32]
Drei Lieder der Ophelia, op.67 nos.1-3 (1918) [7:30]
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex, England, 29-30 April, 1 May 2009. DDD

Experience Classicsonline

According to the accompanying booklet notes, Richard Strauss once said: "I thank my Almighty Creator for the gift and inspiration of the female voice." Music lovers since have had Strauss himself to thank as creator of countless gifts of inspiration written for the female voice: not only incredible operatic roles like Salome and Elektra, but lieder like Cäcilie, Morgen! and the so-called Four Last Songs. This recital by Canadian soprano Gillian Keith features Strauss's real last song, Malven, and an entertaining selection of others, well known and relatively neglected. The CD title 'Bei Strauss' is presumably a playful reference to Gershwin's song 'By Strauss': music-theatre being what it is, Gershwin was decidedly not alluding to Richard.
Strauss's numerous songs date predominantly from his earlier years; after the Great War he focused primarily on opera and orchestra. Thus the music here belongs to the great Germanic Lieder tradition established by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and sits stylistically between those and Wolf and Mahler: late-Romantically tuneful and passionate, with later ones expressively intensified by chromaticism and harmonic ambiguity.
A whole hour performing Strauss is no easy task for any singer, but Keith emerges with considerable credit. From the beginning the quality of her clear, light, lyrical voice is apparent, and she controls it marvellously, literally breathing life into phrases with thoughtful air control. Her voice is probably best suited to the Baroque repertoire of which most of her discography consists. She does not sound quite demented enough in the Ophelia settings - the only really dark corners of this recital - but generally she brings plenty of apt emotion to Strauss's settings, tastefully understated and always resolutely supported by Simon Lepper's near-immaculate piano.
Keith does have a slight accent at times, but avoids most of the linguistic potholes that toss and jolt the great majority of non-native singers: vowel length, distinguishing between final -'er' -'e', lip-rounding, vowel frontness and so on. Her diction is usually excellent, with just an occasional vocal mis-colourisation or indistinct initial or medial consonant. To all intents and purposes, however, she is thoroughly convincing and communicates the emotional content of the poet's text - as mincing as it sometimes is - and Strauss's ravishing music to great effect.
CDs devoted entirely to Strauss's songs are relatively infrequent - sopranos in particular have tended to prefer the operatic arias, presumably to make a bigger artistic and commercial impact, or, like Keith's fellow Canadian Lynne Fortin last year, to include some Strauss in a pick 'n' mix recital (see review). Keith's German is certainly better than acclaimed Strauss interpreter Jessye Norman's (Philips 000450502), and her accounts more nuanced. Norman's voice, in turn, is undoubtedly better suited to the power and stamina required of Strauss's operatic and orchestral songs. On the other hand, Keith does not have the native-language advantage or indeed quite the emotional range of Diana Damrau, yet Damrau's recital last year on Virgin Classics (6286640) has orchestral accompaniment and a sufficiently divergent programme to make both CDs significant additions to the Strauss lieder discography. Keith's voice is quite similar to American Kiera Duffy, soprano on the most recent volume 5 of Hyperion's excellent multi-singer 'Strauss: The Complete Songs' series (CDA 67746). The Hyperion helpfully features Mädchenblumen for direct comparison, though Duffy's enunciation is unfailingly clear.
At any rate, on a song-by-song basis Keith has substantial competition. Yet in at least one or two instances she has exactly what it takes, with Lepper's help, to make her interpretation as good as it gets. The perennial favourite Ständchen, for example, or 'Freundliches [sic] Vision' and 'Winterweihe' from op.48. Nowhere, though, is she anything like disappointing. 

The recording is rather on the quiet side, but sound and general technical quality is very good. The booklet contains excellent notes on the individual songs by the ever-dependable Malcolm MacDonald, biographies and full song texts in German and English. The track-list is slightly misleading, giving the impression that Strauss's op.69 consists only of the three songs Keith sings, rather than five, and that his op.67 is entitled Three Songs of Ophelia, whereas they comprise only the first half of a six-song cycle.  

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