Posts Tagged ‘Vier Letzte Lieder’

Time Stood Still.

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Strauss on December 16, 2011 at 11:06 am

Review – Renée Fleming, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach

Renée Fleming is one of today’s leading interpreters of Richard Strauss – if not the leading exponent of his music. Of course I may be biased as she is one of the few sopranos that I will readily travel abroad to see in performance, but there is no denying that her interpretations of some of his greatest characters are second-to-none. Here I refer to her Marshallin that I have seen more than once and her Countess in Capriccio for example.

Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder are at the pinnacle of any soprano’s repertory and Ms Fleming herself has recorded them twice superlatively, first in 1996 with Christoph Eschenbach and then again in 2006 with Christian Thielemann.

There is no denying that these four songs are a perfect match for Ms Fleming’s incredible voice and innate sense of musicianship. Over the years she has a developed the closest performance relationship with each of the individual songs as well as the set as a whole.

And nothing was clearer than in her performance of these songs at the Royal Festival Hall conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. There was almost a sense of reunion considering that Eschenbach also conducted Ms Fleming on her Strauss Heroines disc – another perfect recital.

However, before Ms Fleming took to the stage, the concert started with the overture to Wagner’s Tannhauser. Eschenbach is a thoughtful conductor and clearly is a ‘devil-in-the-detail’ man. He drew an almost ‘Germanic’ sound from the orchestra as the opening bars unfolded, the woodwind beautiful pointed and the cellos were breathtaking in the richness of their opening entry. The ensuing allegro, taken at a speed more resolute than Bacchanalian was, nonetheless, a pretty thrilling experience with conductor pulling out orchestra detail that is often missed. Brass were suitably weighty but never threatened to drown out their colleagues.

However nothing could have prepared me – or the audience – for what came next. I admit that I had listened to Ms Fleming and Eschenbach’s 1996 recording of the Strauss earlier in the day, and was reminded of the slower than expected tempi adopted. Yet their performance hadn’t suffered any for those slower speeds and gave Ms Fleming the opportunity to dwell lovingly on Strauss’ vocal line, creating a particular intensity

At the Royal Festival Hall, Fruhling opened at a slightly faster pace than in their recording but Eschenbach highlighted the exquisite orchestral detail that is so often missing in other performances. Ms Fleming’s burnished and bronzed tone sailed through in the vocal line, rising effortlessly above the orchestra, and diction perfect. Her entry at Du kennst mich wieder was a wonderful lesson in control.

From September and the subsequent songs however, Eschenbach slowed the tempi down considerably – perhaps even slower than their original recording. The effect was amazing. It concentrated the attention of the audience completely. Indeed, such was there concentration that I almost felt that many didn’t even breathe during the songs themselves which would have accounted for an almost excessive barrage of coughing in between.

The slow tempi proved no obstacle for Ms Fleming. Indeed for her it seemed an opportunity to revel in, and almost caress, Strauss’ expansive vocal lines and pay particular attention to the text, investing each individual word with significance. In complete control of her voice, she coloured individual phrases, displayed great dynamic control.

In some way, Ms Fleming and Eschenbach created an incredibly intimate performance, almost as if she wasn’t singing to the audience as a whole but to each and everyone one personally.

In Beim Schlafengehen, never have I heard the orchestral texture at Hände laβt von allem Tun drive home the literal sense of the words as Eschenbach eased back even more on the tempo momentarily. Additionally I would more normally want a greater sense of crescendo at Und die Seele unbewatcht, yet the sense of intimacy already created by soprano and orchestra made the restraint shown all the more thrilling. As she drew the song to its final close, she once again displayed absolute control of the vocal line, making each closing phrase an expansive breath. Mesmerising.

Despite a slightly muffled start to Im Abendrot, the final song was truly valedictorian as the soprano placed each word carefully before the audience, wrapped as ever in her wonderfully rich tone. As in the earlier three songs, Eschenbach never permitted the orchestra to play over the voice, again adding to that sense of real intimacy. The flute birdsong, often played intrusively against the soprano, was delicately placed and played throughout.

And indeed as Ms Fleming moved towards the final line of the poem Eschenbach pushed the tempo even slower. Suddenly time seemed to literally stop as she intoned Ist dies etwa der Tod?. Indeed it felt as if Eschenbach and Fleming were literally leading us through the final moments of the narrator, his/her heartbeat gradually slowing from the opening bars of Fruhling as death approached.

As her final note died away, Eschenbach led the orchestra to the final bars and let the sound die away naturally. Indeed while the London Philharmonic seemed to struggle in following Eschenbach on occasion in the songs, the rapt ending they delivered more than made up for any previous inconsistency.

Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach delivered a mesmerising performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Clearly they share a longstanding and deeply felt relationship with the songs over many years. As I have said in a previous post, there seem to be two camps when considering performances of these songs – the ‘grand gesture’ versus the more intimate performance. This was clearly in the second category Personally, the focus and concentration, combined with a real sense of musicianship and involvement in the songs took the whole experience to a deeper level.

Ms Fleming returned to the stage – to rapturous applause – for a single encore – Strauss’ Waldseligkeit. This is a darkly-hued work, emerging from an orchestral denseness that was perfectly captured by Eschenbach and the orchestra. Ms Fleming brightly rose above the orchestra, negotiating the awkward – and unexpected – harmonic shifts with ease and grace and once again demonstrating her Straussian credentials.

In the second half Eschenbach led the London Philharmonic through Beethoven’s Seventh symphony. I say ‘led’ as, still deeply in awe of Chailly’s Beethoven with the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig, while the symphony under Eschenbach was well played, it was the notes that were well played rather than interpreted. However it was still a credible performance and brought the evening to a strong and enjoyable end.

Yet the evening belong – inevitably – to Renée Fleming and her performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Indeed I always judge a good evening by my choice of music as I head home. If the concert is anything but excellent, chances are that I will select something different. If the performance was exceptional then I am drawn to listen to the same piece.

On this occasion? Ms Fleming’s 1996 recording of the View Letzte Lieder conducted by Maestro Eschenbach.


Related Blogs:
1. Follow The Lieder – Richard Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder


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.

Which Performance? The potential pitfalls of recommendation.

In Classical Music, Opera on June 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Listening to Chopin Ballades, Baracolles & Fantasie Op. 39, Krystian Zimerman.

A few days ago a friend of mine asked me to recommend a recording of the Vier Letzte Lieder by Richard Strauss for a member of his family. I should disclose immediately that these marvellous lieder are among my most loved pieces of music. Ever. I must own every single available recording and listen to all four songs at least once or twice a week. My relationship with these four wonderful songs is, however, for another time.

However it did get me thinking about the whole idea of recommendation. I suppose one of the reasons for this blog – particularly as I scribble about CDs – is to recommend particular performances and performers. I don’t pretend to be a professional musician or a professional critic (again, a subject of another blog methinks) and I don’t delude myself that people will agree with what I say. But I hope that my observations give people food for thought. Writing this all down definitely makes me think more – both during and after the exercise.

So anyway, my friend knows my love of – or perhaps it is an obsession with – these masterpieces by Richard Strauss and asked me for a recommended recording that he could give as a gift. For a bit of background I gave the person in question a recording of the songs many years ago. At this stage I won’t say which recording. And we have attended performances of them together more than once.

I was about to fire off an immediate response based on my most recent listening and stopped dead. At that point I realised that this wasn’t just about offering an recommendation and therefore an opinion – take it or leave it – but more than that. He was asking me to select a recording which he would then be giving to someone else. In a sense then, the recommendation was a two-part transaction.

I suppose it is the same for everyone when it comes to buying someone a CD as a gift. For me the initial impetus is the performance itself. I’ve bought and enjoyed a particular performance for whatever reason and then – be it as a spontaneous gift or for a particular event – I will then buy it for a specific person. First and foremost for me it is because the performance itself is outstanding in terms of musical standards but secondly because it’s – for want of a better phrase – had an emotional impact on me. Let’s not kid ourselves, we have all been to performances and listened to discs that have elicited a strong emotional response. For me, for example, Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! either at the end of a complete Die Walküre or as a bleeding chunk as on René Pape’s recent CD gets me every single time. God knows what I will be like in under two weeks when I see it in San Francisco as part of my first complete Ring cycle!

So, here’s the first transaction. You choose to buy a particular recording of a specific composer, performer, performance etc as a gift because you personally enjoyed it. But more importantly there is an emotional dimension to the choice as well. Because you choose it for that particular person based on your friendship, the nature of the event or moment and finally because of what it says about your friendship and the emotional connection you want to make. On the last point it could simply be because you want them to – hopefully – enjoy it as much as you did, or because – as is sometime the case – it marks a moment in your relationship. Or because you think that it will be of some kind of help or support.

However if they are in fact asking for a recommendation as a gift does that change anything? Should it change anything? One of the fundamental reasons for giving someone the CD is because you have enjoyed it yourself. And it would be mad to think that that enjoyment wouldn’t necessarily be the same ‘second hand’ as it were. However the emotional dimension will not be there. Unless of course they are giving the same CD to someone under the same – or similar circumstances – that it was originally received.

Enough to make your head spin? Did mine. Especially when you think of how many recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder there are to consider.

Of course I could have recommended the recording I had originally given him but somehow that didn’t seem like the right thing to do. There had been a specific reason for that recording at the time. In fact it was because it was the first recording I had purchased. Other recordings – although not necessarily better recordings – had been made since then. So having first thought the answer was easy I now face a pleasurable task. Selecting which performance to recommend. Not an unpleasant task I have to admit. I already have reduced the mental shortlist to four recordings. But there are many factors to consider.

So all I have to do now is sit back. And listen.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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