I did not know the Gundula Janowitz version of Strauss’ great final work, Four Last Songs. I owned the performance on just about every format, even cassette, but purchased for the world class performance of Death and Transfiguration, a Side 1 to end all Side 1s. Stupid, I know!
A favourite of Karajan, Janowitz’ voice has the best of both worlds—as pretty as Kiri and Kathleen with the gravitas and weight of Jesse and Renée. As such, she can float Strauss’ stratospheric demands like a coloratura then dig down for the low register lines with trombone power. All the while interpreting the great German poems by Hesse and von Eichendorff with deep reverence and musicality.
Strauss wrote the songs with his famous wife in mind—the soprano, Pauline de Ahna. The solo horn parts were inspired by his father, Franz Strauss, an equally famous horn player. Kirsten Flagstad sang the premiere in 1950 with Furtwängler conducting London's Philharmonia Orchestra.
Janowitz is now among my two favourite performances of this intensely difficult masterpiece. I purchased every version for Karajan’s glorious Tod und Verklärung but should have listened to the equally magnificent Songs. Strauss quotes the youthful Tod und Verklärung in my favourite of the Four Last Songs, the final Im Abendrot (At Sunset). Closing his last work in heavenly light.
You may find this performance equaled by Jesse Norman and Kiri te Kanawa, but I don’t think you’ll find it bettered.
The recording, unfortunately, is much the same as other 70’s DGs from this source, with Karajan buggering about with the balances and the mix. But even his clumsy hand can’t ruin the performances. Surfaces are flawless and the Speakers Corner Records' reissue goes some way to balancing the orchestra in Tod und Verklärung. Interestingly, Karajan really holds back his Berlin Phil charges in the Four Last Songs. Janowitz has the lushest pillow of sound on which to solo. It’s refreshing and surprising.
The recording of Death and Transfiguration is better—balanced and much better, authoritative bass. As a performance, it’s flawless. You won’t find better horn or string playing on record. Woodwinds are spectacular, too. Karajan, even through a little recorded murk, does not miss a trick—every inflection, every dynamic and every climax (the most difficult technical aspect of this cinematic work) is built to perfection.
How a 25 year old conjured up the music for the story of a dying man’s memories of hopes and dreams is beyond me. A magnificent work served by a superlative performance let down slightly by a brilliant conductor acting as a recording engineer.