Follow The Lieder – Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Strauss on August 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Polina Pasztircsák/Musikkollegium Winterthur/Alexander Rahbari
Martina Arroyo/Kolner Rundunk-SinfonieOrchester/Gunter Wand
Britt Marie Aruhn/Stockholm Royal Orchestra/Viktor Aslund
Regina Klepper/Neue Schwäbische Sinfonie/Gerhard Fackler
Dorothea Roschmann/Rotterdamm Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin

First of all, an admission. Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder are in my top five list of vocal pieces that I love and listen to the most. This quartet of songs are up there alongside Die Walküre, Don Giovanni, Die Rosenkavalier and Giulio Cesare.

Of course a great deal has been written about the set and a great many sopranos have performed and recorded them. And I have a not inconsiderable collection of these recordings myself. When I scan my CD shelves I can start with Flagstad and then embark quite literally on an aural history – moving on through Steber, Jurinac and Nilsson before reaching Della Casa, Janowitz, Söderstromm and Schwarzkopf, then arriving at the likes of Isokoski, Fleming, Harteros and Stemme without forgetting Norman, Te Kanawa, The oft-neglected Tomowa-Sintow, Harper, Lott and Zylis-Gara.

But that is just scratching the surface. I’ve not mentioned performances by other famous sopranos such as Auger, Margiono, Bonney, Meier, Studer, Brewer, Voigt, Eaglen, Kenny and Popp alongside lesser known performers – to me at least in this repertory – such as Meyer-Topsøe, Kuhse, Sass and Merbeth.

And of course this doesn’t even begin to accord any prominence to the countless concert performances that I have attended. Not only by some of the singers that I have listed above, but others like Anne Schwannewilms for example.

Clearly the ability to perform the songs is de rigeur for sopranos and is often perceived to be a major milestone in their careers. It would seem that only a foolhardy singer would embark on a performance too early on as clearly they require not only formidable technique coupled with a voice at the height of its maturity, with control, fluidity and evenness of tone and depth throughout, but also a keen instinct in terms of interpretation.

Needless to say everyone will have their own ‘definitive’ interpretation and as I mentioned in a previous blog ( it is only natural to benchmark any new – or newly discovered – recordings against these performances. Not always a valid approach I agree.

On this occasion, I cannot hold up my hand and point to a singular definitive performance. And in the same way – until today – can I single out a particularly disappointing performance. Generally speaking, when it comes to their performance, there are two main camps when it comes to Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder. In the first camp is the ‘grand gesture’ performance – big voices arrayed alongside the orchestra with intelligence. And sitting pretty in here are Flagstad, Nilsson together with singers such as Jessie Norman and Nina Stemme. Magnificent, broad performances. The other camp, and somewhat larger, houses singers who take a more private and personal approach. That is not to say that the ‘grand camp’ do not turn in performances of introspection and weight. Absolutely not. And in the second camp are the lies of Schwarzkopf, Della Casa, Te Kanawa and Lott. Beautifully crafted singing with an attention to both the vocal and the orchestral detail.

And for me, both performance camps are equally valid. And depending on my mood, what my ear – and soul – wants at that particular moment in time and, in occasion, who I am with, will determine exactly which singer I want to listen to.

Combined with the vocal capabilities of the singer and their ability to convey not only the words but the sense behind the words – true of any vocal performance let’s be frank – is the paramount importance of a genuine sympathetic conductor. Not only one who follows the singer instinctively but is, rather, a genuine partner throughout.

So it’s always with a sense of excitement that I discover a new recording. And the recent weeks has been like Christmas. Not only new recordings but – through – unearthing recordings in their archive.

So over the past week or so I have listened to performances by Dorothea Roschmann, Britt Marie Aruhn, Martina Arroyo, Polina Pasztircsák and Regina Klepper. And admittedly some of these singers are new to me. I’ve listened to these in isolation, alongside each other and – of course – alongside previous performances.

Hungarian-born Polina Pasztircsák is new to me. Judging from her website and clips on YouTube she counts the Vier Letzte Lieder as something of a calling card, alongside Micaëla in Carmen. However ultimately her performances – coupled on the disc with Shostakovich, Bartók and Kodàly – are disappointing. While I am sure her performances of Handel, Mozart and Rossini are ideally suited to her voice, it does not suit these songs, or I would imagine, Strauss in general. Indeed I struggle to see her in the role of Bizet’s Michaela.

Richard Strauss was the ultimate lieder writer. Some of you may disagree, but Strauss had an erring instinct when it came to writing for the voice and wrote vocal lines that required perfect technique and – as I have said above – a rich, even and flexible tone throughout the register. And Strauss wrote vocal lines that were unforgiving if this was not the case. And sadly in Ms Pasztircsák, this is not the case. Over and above a slight yet ever-present wobble in her voice, her tone sounds thin and stretched as she reaches into the higher registers required even at the start in Früling. This is coupled by a lack of warmth, almost of brittleness which left me feeling that her vocal line was strained and pushed, particularly as she tried to accommodate the dynamic demands that Strauss also wove into the vocal line. In September she generally fared better, although from Sommer lächelt erstaunt und Matt in den sterbenden Gartentraum onwards the sound is tight and incredibly strained. And here, as in the rest of the cycle, it was evident that while her diction is very good, she didn’t or couldn’t convey the sense of the words themselves. Beim Schlafengehen, with it’s notable crescendo at Und die Seele unbewacht is, at the moment my favourite song of the quartet. Yet from the start she disappoints, although here it is clear that she is less than ably supported by conductor Rahbari or the orchestra. A sluggishness – and not altogether to do with the tempo – and bland, lacklustre playing, even in the violin solo, mar the song throughout and her return at the crescendo is an ‘unevent’. It’s a welcome relief when the final chord fades in preparation for Im Abendrot, but this disappoints from the beginning. Taken at a dangerously slow tempo considering a lack of vocal security in Ms Pasztircsák, the orchestra disappoints at once with the horns failing to bloom right at the start. From her first entry the wobble is clearly evident and I can’t help but wonder if this is Ms Pasztircsák attempting interpretation. If so, it’s misjudged and distracting. Again the voice strains and most notably at the very moment that the voice should be everything – at precisely Und die Seele unbewacht . As with the preceding song, it’s almost a relief when the final chord fades. Ist dies etwa der Tod? Perhaps, but not in the way Strauss envisaged it.

Even in the most disappointing performances there is always a moment, or a few moments of beauty or insight. Sadly for Polina Pasztircsácon the Musikkollegium Winterthur and Alexander Rahbari this is never the case. Not a recording I shall return to often, if at all.

However from here on in there was a marked improvement in and pleasure taken in listening to the performances.

Martina Arroyo until now has always been a soprano – a spinto – that I have associated with Verdi. And it is in these roles that I have much admired her. Arroyo has a dark, rich soprano, which is at the same time agile and beautifully balanced. So it was with some surprise – and trepidation – that I stumbled across her recording with Günter Wand and the Kolner Rundunk-SinfonieOrchester. The trepidation was totally misplaced. These are wonderful performances that clearly place Ms Arroyo in the first camp and right by the campfire! And for those who have always considered Wand a slow or measured conductor, take a listen – he takes the songs at a fairly fast pace without detracting anything at all simply because his attention to detail and an acute understanding of Strauss’ lines combined with the sheer joy in Arroyo’s performances, work their magic. Granted closer listening reveals some orchestral slips but never enough to marr the performances.

Arroyo revels in Strauss’ vocal lines and imbues them with a real sense of fluidity, and while her voice may sometimes sound a little strained at the top of her register her real sense of musicality shines through. Indeed, from the very start in Frühling I got a real sense that for her the song might be about the end of life but a life that should be celebrated. The opening of September demonstrates how vital the relationship between soprano and conductor is in these songs with Wand’s pinpoint delicacy superbly supporting without ever intruding on the vocal line. Interestingly it’s in this song that I winged for a but more flexibility in tempo from Wand, particularly as the song ends down into the horn solo – but that’s purely a personal observation.

The first vocal entry, Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht, in Beim Schlafengehen often sets up the whole song for me. An intuitive performer carefully places the words almost like a weary sigh and while Arroyo doesn’t quite succeed like Anja Harteros for Janssons, she isn’t far off and indeed makes the whole opening phrase one of weariness. And of course Arroyo and Wand do not disappoint at Und die Seele unbewacht, with Wand teasing out a beautifully rendered violin solo that melts into Arroyo’s thrilling crescendo with the momentum carried right through to the end, with a wonderful chest note from the soprano on Nacht before sailing to the song’s conclusion. Wand achieves a most wonderful orchestral bloom at the beginning of Im Abendrot that distracts from the speed as he launches into the final song before slowing imperceptibly for Arroyo’s first entry. And Wand again pulls back with marvellous effect at So tief im Abendrot allowing Arroyo to perfectly deliver the closing line before the orchestra continues to wind down under Wand’s careful watch.

Again it’s hard not to think, when listening to this performance, that is not so much a sad valediction of life but rather a celebration and an almost keen acceptance of it’s end. And for that, and Arroyo’s wonderful singing and Wand’s superb conducting this is definitely a recording that I will continually return to.

Neither Britt Marie Aruhn and Regina Klepper are sopranos that I knew before discovering their performances here. Swedish Aruhn has a bright yet light soprano, however a lack of depth means that ultimately her voice isn’t ideally suited to these songs. But she is clearly an intelligent performer and while she doesn’t truly get behind the words, she doesn’t make a fist of her performances. She more than adequately matches the flexes of the vocal line with ease and while she does manage a pretty impressive crescendo in Beim Schlafengehen, in the third song she does display some vocal insecurity with a tendency to steer north of the written note combined with some Swedish-inflected German. But all in all Aruhn, ably if blandly supported by the Stockholm Royal Orchestra and Viktor Aslund, delivers a simple, unobtrusive performance which in it’s simplicity makes for a refreshing, no frills performance.

From the start, with her clear and precise diction it’s obvious at Regina Klepper specialises in lieder recitals, as she wraps herself in and relishes in the words of Hesse and von Eichendorff. Launching into Früling at a speed even faster than Wand, Klepper has an even, resonant voice that lilts attractively against Strauss’ song lines, with little show of stress and intelligent and consistent control of dynamics. The tempi remain fast throughout the cycle but never with a sense of feeling rushed. For me, the obvious care and joy that Klepper instills in the texts, and the confident support from Gerhard Fackler, who conducts the warmly resonant Neue Schwäbische Sinfonie make these performances stand out for me. Similarly her accompanying performances of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder make this a recital worth investigating and I am keen to hear more of Regina Klepper.

I have long been an adored of Dorothea Roschmann, particularly enjoying her performances of Handel and Mozart. She is an intuitive singer who pays a great deal of attention to the words and communicates them. And here js no exception. Overall in her Vier Letzte Lieder, Roschmann doesn’t disappoint. Intelligently supported and guided by Nézet-Séguin – who conducts a very accomplished Ein Heldenleben on the same disc – she delivers a well sung and finely nuanced performance with a keen focus on the words of the poems. In parts there is even a hint of the radiance lustre so often lacking in other performances, but there is also on occasion a hint of strain, particularly in the wide ranging vocal lines of the first song.

In a sense what Roschmann sings here is a very credible ‘first’ recording of Strauss most beautiful legacy for the soprano voice. I hope – like Te Kanawa and Fleming – that she is given the opportunity to re-record them again. Perhaps with Thielemann as Fleming did when her voice has gained some lustre and a more burnished tone.

So, with the exception of Polina Pasztircsák, I cannot complain with any of the four very enjoyable recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder that I have listened to over the last few weeks. Each, in their own way, says something unique and different in terms of interpretation and all four both surprised me and made me listen anew to the songs themselves. I will undoubtedly dip into all of them again but if I had to choose one from the remaining four? It would be Martina Arroyo and Gunther Wand every time.

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  2. […] Vier Letzte Lieder are at the pinnacle of any soprano’s repertory and Ms Fleming herself has recorded them twice […]

  3. […] of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly […]

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  7. […] cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall is that the songs lose much of their effect. As I have said before, the performance of these songs spans everything from the grand operatic gesture from the likes of […]

  8. […] Christoph Eschenbach was in London with Renée Fleming in a memorable performance of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder. As with Ms Stutzmann, the maestro is a ‘details’ man, delving deeply into the score to […]

  9. […] And this is a case in point, Danish soprano Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe who performs the lieder alongside excerpts from Wagner and Strauss’s Vier Letzte lieder. […]

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