Richard Strauss Four Last Songs, Orchestral Lieder, Der Rosenkavalier Suite

Renée Fleming, Soprano

Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

RCA VICTOR RED SEAL 09026-68539-2 (DDD)

Playing Time: 68:55

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!
Strauss Cover

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