Recording of the Week: Four Last Songs

June 17, 2010

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs are not only a personal valedictory, but they are the end of more than a century of glorious German art songs; they are the farewell to the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Mahler, and finally Strauss himself. These hibernal songs written shortly before the composer’s death, and not performed until after it, have been recorded by almost every soprano of note over the past 60 years. The earlier Strauss, he of the whale sized orchestra and bombast amid beauty, had long been tamed by time. What remained was a gentle old age devoid of anger covered by resignation and acceptance.

The standard by which all interpreters of these works is judged was set by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Here is her recording of the third of the songs – Beim Schlafengehen. All four of them can be downloaded here for only one euro which at today’s exchange rate is less than $1.25. Schwarzkopf’s sensitivity and phrasing reveal every nuance of these beautiful songs. Her almost fragile tone captures the beautiful poignance that Strauss’ final effort suffused these songs. Note the wonderful reading of the text of the third and final stanza.

Beim Schlafengehen
(“Going to sleep”) (Text: Hermann Hesse)

Nun der Tag mich müd’ gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken.
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele, unbewacht,
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

Now that I am wearied of the day,
I will let the friendly, starry night
greet all my ardent desires
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night’s magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

Renée Fleming easily equals Schwarzkopf in her interpretation of these songs. And she brings to them a more lustrous instrument. She takes the song much slower than Schwarzkopf – her version is a minute and forty seconds longer. Her voice is so perfectly controlled that this greater duration is not readily noticed as the beauty of the song and her voice seems enhanced by this rendition. Here is Fleming’s singing the last stanza of Beim Schlafengehen.

Fleming is so good with Strauss that I wonder what drives her to the bel canto repertory where she’s good enough, but does not reach the level she attains with Strauss. This recording contains five additional Strauss songs which are all gorgeously rendered. Particularly noteworthy is Wiegenlied.  The disc concludes with Der Rosenkavalier  Suite conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

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