Sunday, June 25, 2017

Four last songs

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) were written when he was in his eighties, in declining health, and confronting mortality. But these songs are not filled with grief, but rather a kind of poignant acceptance.

In the aftermath of World War II Strauss and his wife Pauline had been allowed to leave a devastated Germany and move to Switzerland. There in the spring of 1946 he copied Joseph Eichendorff's "Im Abendrot" (At twilight) into his notebook. The poem describes two weary travelers resting at the end of a long journey; clearly it had a deeply personal resonance for Strauss as he and his wife approached the end of their lives together.  (For the text in German and English please see the end of this post.)

Perhaps because their living situation was so unsettled it took Strauss two years to set this poem to music. At some point he decided make "Im Abendrot" part of a larger song-cycle. After finishing the orchestral score of "Im Abendrot" in May 1948, he composed three additional songs over the next few months setting poems by Herman Hesse: "Frühling" (Spring), "Beim schlafengehen" (Going to sleep), and "September." This final song was finished, fittingly enough, in late September. Richard Strauss died a year later in September 1949, and Pauline just eight months afterwards. Neither lived to hear the first public performance of Vier letzte Lieder on 22 May 1950.

Vier letzte Lieder is not Strauss's title; it was created by his publisher Ernst Roth, who also determined the published order of the songs (the composer left no indication of song order). The most coherent thematic sequence would seem to be "Frühling," "September," "Im Abendrot," and "Beim schlafengehen," moving from spring to autumn and from twilight to sleep, but to my knowledge they have never been performed in that order. Roth published them in the order "Frühling," "September," "Beim schlafengehen," and "Im Abendrot"; this is the order that makes the most sense in terms of scoring (lighter to fuller), length (shorter to longer), and the progression of keys (C minor to E-flat major). It is the order that most performances follow today. [1]

Pauline was a soprano, and Strauss may have had her apparently remarkable voice in mind when he composed this cycle. The music is a supreme test of a soprano's art. The songs range over two octaves, reaching down to Middle C, the lowest note many sopranos can sing, and up to just a half-step below high C. They demand the ability to sing long, spun-out phrases, but at the same time to make the words understood over the sound of a large orchestra. The necessary combination of power, lyricism, security throughout the range, subtlety, sensitivity to the words, and breath control is rare.

I have listened in detail to ten different recordings of this work by seven different singers (plus several others that I didn't choose to write about here). Of course, there can be no definitive version of these masterpieces; each set of interpreters will bring different perspectives to the songs' realization. And a listener's response to these works will also necessarily be highly individual. So I don't expect universal agreement with the opinions I express below. In ascending order of my preference of performer:

Kirsten Flagstad

Kirsten Flagstad, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler (1950)

This is a tape of the premiere performance (or more probably a rehearsal, since there is no applause) at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Strauss had specifically requested that Flagstad sing the first performance of this work. She was a renowned Brünnhilde and Isolde, and though by the time of the premiere she was in her mid-50s, her voice was still relatively powerful and largely secure (though the tape captures a few wayward notes). Furtwängler's tempi are generally fast, perhaps too much so in "Frühling." The sound quality is muddy and there is a good deal of hiss, crackle, and other distortion, so I don't recommend this recording as an introduction to these songs. But once you are familiar with them it's fascinating to listen to the first interpretations.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Ackerman (1953)

Schwarzkopf was a well known lieder singer and was famous for her attention to the text. Her voice, though, can be a bit of an acquired taste: in particular, she has a tight vibrato that I sometimes find obtrusive. The recording is clear, but the mono sound is somewhat flattened and the orchestra is rather recessed. These songs are a farewell to remembered pleasures—the seasons, a lifelong love—but Schwarzkopf's approach (and vocal quality) is more austere than sensuous. My notes on relistening to this recording say "these performances require completion from the ideal version in your head."

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by George Szell (1965)

This recording is in stereo, and the orchestral sound is much more lush and present than in the 1953 version.  However, Schwarzkopf's performance not more attractive: the vibrato is still prominent, and she struggles in her lower range (even sounding a bit off-key to me in places). And Szell takes the final song, "Im Abendrot," at a tempo that feels sluggish.

Renee Fleming

Renée Fleming, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (1996)

A bit of a surprise. Although I very much enjoy Fleming's Strauss Heroines album, also conducted by Eschenbach, I hadn't expected to like this recording as well as I do. Those for whom Fleming's occasional tendency to scoop up to notes rather than attack them at pitch is infuriating, or who demand precise German diction, should probably avoid this release. The rest of us can enjoy Fleming's rich, full voice, which was pretty much at its creamy best in this period. She is more secure in her lower range than either of the singers mentioned so far, and to my ears her vibrato is less obtrusive. Eschenbach favors slow tempos; while clearly he wants us to luxuriate in the sheer aural appeal of Fleming's voice,  "Im Abendrot" almost comes to a standstill near the end. Fleming manages the extraordinary breath control required, but the result is finally just a bit too slow for my taste.

Kiri te Kanawa

Kiri te Kanawa, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis (1979)

Kiri te Kanawa's voice has a prominent quick vibrato that is somewhat similar to Schwarzkopf's tightly focused sound, but she is more tonally secure here than Schwarzkopf was in the Szell recording. Like Schwarzkopf, her lower register is not particularly rich-sounding. Davis (or his engineers) highlight some of the details in the scoring that aren't as audible in the Szell recording, and his tempi in every song are faster than Szell's. But these versions don't convey much of a feeling of poignancy or autumnal reflection; to this listener they are lovely without being especially moving.


In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
von deinem Duft und Vogelgesang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
in Gleiß und Zier,
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennest mich wieder,
du lockest mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart.

In gloomy crypts
I long dreamed
of your trees and blue skies,
of your scents and birdsong.

Now you lie revealed
in gleaming adornment,
bathed in light
like a miracle before me.

You know me once more,
you invite me tenderly.
Through all my limbs quivers
your blissful presence.

Lisa Della Casa

Lisa della Casa, with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm (1953)

This was the first commercial studio recording of the cycle, and as Michael Kennedy writes in his survey, "A generation learned to love this work from this recording." [2] It's easy to hear why. Della Casa's voice has both "silver purity of tone" (Kennedy's words) and a touching quality made even more so by the singer's restraint. Just two years after making this recording she made her role debut as the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, a role that requires precisely these qualities. Karl Böhm's tempi, although among the quickest of any recording, rarely feel rushed, and the songs lose none of their emotional impact. In the original version of this recording the songs were given the order in which they were performed by Flagstad at the premiere: "Beim schlafengehen" is first, and Autumn ("September") comes before Spring ("Fruhling").


Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer Lächelt erstaunt und matt
in den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh,
langsam tut er die [großen]
müdgewordnen Augen zu.

The garden mourns,
the rain falls coolly on the flowers.
Summer shudders
quietly to its end.

Leaf after golden leaf
drops from the high acacia tree.
Summer smiles, amazed and weary,
on the dying dream-garden.

Long by the roses still
it lingers, yearns for rest,
slowly it closes its [great]
weary eyes.

Lucia Popp

Lucia Popp, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti (1977)

Lucia Popp has an almost ideal voice for these songs. Her sound is gorgeous, and at the same time she is very alert to the text, but not in a mannered or over-emphatic way. This cycle was recorded in concert and was issued on DVD (it is viewable on YouTube). Solti takes an approach similar to Böhm: "Im Abendrot" takes only six minutes (compare to Eschenbach's nearly nine minutes with Renée Fleming). But as with Böhm, there is no lessening of emotional impact; at the end of "Im Abendrot" Popp has tears in her eyes, and you probably will too.

Lucia Popp, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (1993)

These were Popp's last recordings. In 1993 she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and when she recorded these songs about mortality she was probably all too aware of her own impending death. Although her voice is perhaps not quite as youthfully fresh as it was in her earlier recordings of the cycle with Solti and Tennstedt, it is infused with even more profound feeling. However, Thomas is so determined to avoid sentimentality and maintain brisk tempi that I think he misses some of the expressive opportunities in the music. Still, these performances are treasurable.

Lucia Popp, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Klaus Tennstedt (1982)

Tennstedt's tempi are on the slow side, but they don't feel overly indulgent. Although the slow speeds may have presented technical challenges to Popp, she performs the songs with a lyricism, tenderness and a hint of vulnerability that are irresistible. Simply radiant.


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 the day has made me weary,
My ardent longing is to be
kindly enfolded by the starry night,
like a tired child.

Hands, cease all your labor;
brow, forget all your thoughts.
Now all my senses
only yearn to sink into sleep.

And the soul without constraint
wishes to soar free in flight,
so that in the magic circle of night
it may live deeply and a thousandfold.

Gundula Janowitz

Gundula Janowitz with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (1974)

This was the performance that first made me fall in love with this work. Janowitz's voice has all the power and lyricism and range the songs require. The first time I heard her gorgeous melisma taken in one breath on the word "Vogelgesang" in the first stanza of the first song, "Frühling," I was stunned. Karajan's tempi are on the slow side, but it gives the listener time to revel in the lush sound of the Berlin Philharmonic and the superb singing of Janowitz. Utterly ravishing. If you only want to own one version of these great works—and I hope I've convinced you that one version is not enough—this would be my recommendation.


Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gesangen Hand in Hand,
vom Wandern ruhn wir beide
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft,
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede,
o tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde –
ist dies etwa der Tod?

Through hardship and joy
we have walked hand in hand,
now let us rest from our journey
as we look out over the quiet countryside.

Around us the valleys grow dark,
already night is falling.
Two larks alone still soar
as though dreaming, into the fragrant air.

Draw near, and let them flutter about,
soon it will be time for sleep,
lest we lose our way
in this lonely place.

O boundless, silent peace,
so profound in the twilight.
How weary we are of travelling –
is this, perhaps, death?

Update 26 June 2017: In a previous version of this post the positions of Renée Fleming and Kiri te Kanawa were reversed.

  1. The "Four last songs" are not actually Strauss's final lied composition. In November 1948 he completed a setting for soprano with piano accompaniment of a poem by Betty Wehrli-Knob entitled "Malven" (Hollyhocks). He sent the manuscript to the soprano Maria Jeritza with the dedication "Der geliebten Maria dieser letzte Rose!" (To my beloved Maria, this last rose). The manuscript was found among her papers after her death in 1982, and the song was premiered by Kiri te Kanawa in 1985.

  2. Michael Kennedy, "Richard Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)," in Song on Record: 1. Lieder, edited by Alan Blyth, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 334.

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