Although there are detractors of Richard Strauss for his heart-on-sleeve
and melodramatic style, only the hardest of hearts will not be
moved by a magnificent new recording of his Four Last Songs.
Renée Fleming, the young American soprano, makes an amazingly
assured recording of one of Strauss's greatest works. Set to poems
by Herman Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorf, these uncompromisingly
beautiful songs are the culmination of Strauss's seventy-eight
years of compositional life.
Strauss was married to soprano Pauline de Ahna, and had her voice
in mind when composing many of his vocal works including the songs
on this recording. The Four Last Songs (named posthumously
by his publisher) were among his very last works and a fitting
testament to his genius. Strauss's humourous quip asserting he
was the greatest second-rate composer he knew, certainly does
not apply here!
Renée Fleming has seemingly captured, early in her career,
the best qualities of those who have recorded these difficult
works before her. This is not to suggest that she is anything
but a totally original talent. However, the beauty of Kiri te
Kanawa, the power of Jessye Norman, and the interpretive expression
of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf come to mind as she makes these works
sound her own. Ms. Fleming dispatches the songs with the most
amazing breath control and with a dedication to the text that
is unnerving. In the first song, Frühling (Spring),
the rubato is nearly willful, but the shape and direction of each
line is perfectly placed. In the second song, September, listen
to the words "Augen zu", 6 bars before G (Boosey and
Hawkes vocal score). She ascends the slow five bars without breaking
the phrase while controlling her diction and the natural rhythmic
emphasis. Remarkable! With the last song, Im Abendrot (At
Dusk), the final recollections and quotes of Strauss's early tone
poem Death and Transfiguration are aptly drawn out to a
point where the barlines have all but disappeared. The final word
"Tod?" (death), is sung with such bleakness, honesty
and natural commitment, that all the beauty and drama that has
gone before sounds intrinsically right.
Orchestral sonority, especially the string sound, is lean rather
than rich - somewhat of a caveat in the works of Richard Strauss.
When comparing the RCA recording with Jessye Norman's wonderful
traversal with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt
Masur (Philips 411 052-2), the Houston Symphony string section
suffer by the comparison. However, tuning and phrasing are excellent
with a superbly balanced wind section. If you already own and
love the Philips recording, Renée Fleming perfectly compliments
Ms. Norman's grandiose style (does she ever sing a true pianissimo?).
The recording, made in Jones Hall, is detailed, warm, and a lovely
vehicle in which to hear the expressiveness of Ms. Fleming's voice.
The sound seems to float unencumbered by gravity, with text appearing
from above and within the orchestral fabric. The orchestra is
miked from a close perspective by recording engineer Lawrence
Rock, and is recorded and edited with 20-bit technology. While
the sound is lovely, audiophiles who listen for a wide and deep
soundstage will have to look elsewhere.
The five Orchestral Lieder are well performed, if not with
the same lustrous quality Fleming brings to the Four Last Songs.
Vocal intonation is not quite as secure and the interpretation,
to my ears, is not at the same exalted level. However, these songs,
composed throughout Strauss's career, are lovely to listen to
and will bring much enjoyment.
Enjoyment is the watchword for the Houston Symphony's performance
of the eternally jolly Der Rosenkavalier Suite.
The orchestra members seem to enjoy themselves, with conductor
Christoph Eschenbach pointing the way superbly at all the checkpoints.
The suite was arranged from Strauss's opera by conductor Artur
Rodzinsky, and is a highlight tour around all the great melodies
with a few transitions thrown in for harmonic correctness! Eschenbach,
after a very successful career as a concert pianist, is turning
into a very fine conductor. On this account, he has obviously
brought the standard of the Houston Symphony Orchestra up to the
best of American orchestral ensembles. Intonation is impeccable
and the phrasing Eschenbach elicits is echt Strauss. The strings,
again, suffer only in comparison to recordings by the senior continental
ensembles. The beginning of the Suite is a special opportunity
for the Houston players to assert themselves. The opening - a
bedroom scene with the curtains closed - is suitably erotic. Trumpets
announce the hero. This is coupled with an ever rising harmonic
figure in the strings adding to the frenzy. The horn section,
with whooping glissandos, announce the impending deed with amazing
dexterity. A tour de force!
Though the performances of the Orchestral Lieder and the Rosenkavalier Suite are very good, it is the Four Last Songs that are center stage. It is a performance to be cherished. There are many sopranos on the concert and recording circuit today, but only a few have the type of voice to seriously attempt these songs. It takes great confidence and ability by a young artist (and her manager) to record such a difficult program. Renée Fleming flaunts her magnificent instrument and invites comparisons to the greatest of artists who have gone before her. With this recording, she has laid the benchmark for all who will follow. Highly recommended.
-- Anthony Kershaw