This last entry of discs for Strauss’s anniversary year of 2014 is
probably also the starriest, and it carries the added attraction of
featuring Strauss’s own orchestra. He himself conducted what
was then called the Royal Court Opera Orchestra in Berlin between
1898 and 1918. Their successors in the Staatskapelle gave this concert
in August 2014, partly to raise funds for the restoration of the Staatsoper
building in which Strauss himself conducted. It’s fitting, therefore,
that the orchestra and Barenboim, Strauss’s successor, are the
most worthwhile things about this recording, though not without qualification.
The main attraction on this disc, as the cover makes plain, is supposed
to be Anna Netrebko’s take on the Four Last Songs,
but I didn’t rate her performance very highly at all. Lest we
forget, she has barely any experience in Strauss, as far as I can
see, and it's ambition to the point of hubris to jump in with
the Four Last Songs. It's not a great success. The
voice is luxurious and opulent, as one might expect, but it lacks
the autumnal quality that is so intrinsic to these songs. She makes
fairly heavy weather of the opening of Frühling, with a heavily
accented low opening and an ascent that feels as though she is deliberately
hiking herself up rather than confidently sitting astride the notes.
Nor does she sound particularly happy with the German diction. September
has the same problems, but here I was reminded of the sensational
orchestral playing, not just in the solo horn and violin, but also
in the string shimmers that open the song. The orchestra is also the
finest aspect of Beim Schlafengehen. Netrebko seems at last
to settle into the blissful peace of Im Abendrot, taking
us slowly and (fairly) sensitively through the tale of the elderly
couple facing their end. She pares the voice down fairly effectively
in the third stanza, but then throws on some unnecessary extra volts
as she moves into the fourth. No: this is for diehard Netrebko fans
only - the rest of us will wait until her interpretation matures somewhat.
Barenboim’s take on Heldenleben is well considered
and clearly thought-through, but also rather fussy and it doesn’t
always work. He surprises in a couple of places, most notably the
very opening: where the cellos and basses of most orchestras attack
that opening phrase like a reverse staccato, Barenboim seems to coax
it gently into being and then massage it upwards, saving the power
for the bigger statements that come later. Later, too, when the Hero
theme re-emerges after the battle sequence (track 8, 7:27), it is
much quieter than you might expect, suggesting, I wonder, whether
the hero’s struggle has got the better of him? I got a similar
feeling from those aggressive slurs that come just before the final
“resignation” passage (track 10, 1:09), which here sound
so dark as to indicate that the hero has been all but crushed. That
seems to come through in the final appearance of the Companion theme
(track 10, 3:57), which sounds quieter too, as though the hero is
in desperate need of his withdrawal. I didn’t warm to everything,
here: it’s as though Barenboim felt the need to impose a particular
view of Strauss which, while not absolutely invalid, for me doesn’t
quite fit with what’s in the music.
A definite bonus, though, is the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin,
which reaches a level of sumptuousness that the CBSO (on Andris
Nelsons’ top-notch Orfeo recording)
can’t quite match. The strings are particularly fine, for all
that Barenboim plays around with them. They are agile and muscular
in the opening statement of the Hero’s theme, and they provide
a fantastic bed of sound against which the violin solo (beautifully
played) can unfold in the Companion scene. The winds are nippy and
biting in the depiction of the adversaries, and everything comes together
in a brilliantly exciting Battle sequence.
So there is plenty to enjoy here, but this disc remains a record of
a special occasion rather than a first choice for either work. There
are umpteen excellent recordings of both in the catalogue. No-one
will throw away their Schwarzkopf, Norman, Fleming or Janowitz in
favour of Netrebko’s Last Songs, thought you might
just allow Barenboim’s Heldenleben some space on your
shelf next to Nelsons, Jansons, Karajan or, best of all, Reiner.
And another review...
The headline news is that Anna Netrebko and Daniel Barenboim come
close to challenging the classic Four Last Songs recorded by
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and George Szell. That said, the older version
remains my benchmark (EMI Masters/Warner 0873812 at lower mid-price,
with other songs – review
of earlier reissue: Bargain of the Month). Similarly, Fritz Reiner’s
Heldenleben remains the prime choice for that work, although
it’s now imprisoned in various RCA box sets, from 5 to 63 discs.
If you don’t wish to invest in any of these, Herbert von Karajan makes
an excellent reserve choice (DG Karajan Gold E4390392 at mid-price,
with Tod und Verklärung).
Anna Netrebko is clearly intended to be the attraction, with a cover
shot of her wearing an absurdly over-the-top red dress trailing in
the snow, and she opens the proceedings with the Four Last Songs.
She has already given us two Strauss songs on an earlier multi-lingual
DG recital, Souvenirs (4777639 – review).
Margarida Mota-Bull, though enjoying that CD overall, thought her
singing in Cäcilie a bit patchy but her Strauss credentials
have clearly improved in the meantime. The performances are so very
good on their own terms that I decided not to try a Building a
Library comparison with my favourite versions: Schwarzkopf (see
above), Soile Isokoski (Ondine ODE9822) or Felicity Lott (Chandos
CHAN10075X) except to put in a special word for the Chandos, now at
super-budget price and offering an all-Strauss Lieder collection.
The performances of both the Four Last Songs and Heldenleben
need to be listened to at least a couple of times before they gel.
I was actually a little disappointed with both at first hearing –
see what I have said below on the recording for a possible explanation
– but much more impressed second time around.
Though the Four Last Songs are the star attraction, with delicacy
and sensitivity the keynotes of the accompaniment, there’s plenty
of oomph where it’s needed in the main work, but this Heldenleben
is not just full of sound and fury, for which Wolfram Brandl’s sensitive
handling of the violin part is in no small measure responsible.
Strauss conducted the Staatskapelle, then known as the Royal Prussian
Court Orchestra, 1200 times and while it would be absurd to think
that only orchestras with a historic link to a particular composer
know how to play his music, special relationships can be important.
The Vienna Philharmonic have just demonstrated that again with Zubin
Mehta’s assistance in the 2015 Neujahrskonzert: the Sony recording
should be out by the time that you read this.
I listened to the CD-quality 16-bit download from prestoclassical.co.uk
which offers a small but significant price advantage over the CD at
£11.11. They also offer mp3 (£8.89) and 24-bit, the latter, at £15.57,
slightly more than you are likely to pay for the CD.
You will need to keep the volume up: I started by listening late at
night, an ideal time to hear the Four Last Songs, but with
the wick turned down so as not to disturb the neighbours, and found
the performances and recording a little underwhelming. No doubt the
fact that these are live performances gives them an extra edge, but
that doesn’t mean that the recording, at the right volume, is not
first-rate, capturing the details of Strauss’s rich scoring in Heldenleben
in glowing detail. The audience is not obtrusive and there’s no applause.
There are, however, a few noises off from Daniel Barenboim if you
listen with headphones.
If you download you will miss out on the de luxe version with
hardback book, but you still get the lavishly illustrated booklet
in pdf form. Margarida Mota-Bull was somewhat put off by the ‘girlie’
nature of the Souvenirs booklet; I’m afraid the new one has
lots of pink and Spring blossom, too. On the positive side it contains
the texts and translations and it’s good to have the booklet offered
with the download – something for which my colleagues and I have been
Overall this is one of the best releases of the Strauss year. Even
if you own one of the recordings that I have mentioned, it’s well
worth having. I can say that with all the more authority in that,
remembering Netrebko’s singing of Morgen at the Proms some
years ago, and having listened to samples, I purchased the recording
myself rather than wait to bid for a review copy. Die Welt
the concert as opening the classical music season mit einem
verfrühten Weihnachtsgeschenk, an early Christmas present. The
recording will serve very nicely as what our Tudor ancestors used
to call a handsel, a New Year’s present.
The only reason why I have not made this a Recording of the Month
is that I shall also return to those other performances of both
works that I listed. I avoided doing a direct comparison between
Netrebko and Schwarzkopf but couldn’t resist listening to Schwarzkopf