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Goran Forsling
MusicWeb International, February 2007
Richard Strauss didn’t live long enough to hear the four last songs performed. The premiere took place on 22 May 1950 in the Royal Albert Hall, London with Kirsten Flagstad as soloist with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Furtwängler. On that occasion they were sung not in the later published order but beginning with Beim Schlafengehn, followed by September, Frühling and Im Abendrot. The order of composition differs further: Im Abendrot (6 May 1948), Frühling (18 July 1948), Beim Schlafengehen (4 August 1948) and September (20 September 1948). Most recorded versions stick to the published order, except Lisa Della Casa/Karl Böhm and Felicity Lott/Neeme Järvi, who follow the Flagstad order. Of all the versions I have collected through the years some have become eternal favourites while others tend to be overlooked when I want to play the songs. None of them is without merit, however, and the list, though by no means comprehensive, reads like a sopranos’ Who’s Who: Della Casa, Schwarzkopf, Borkh, Söderström, Popp, Harper, Lott, Te Kanawa, Studer and Isokoski. Della Casa was my first recording and it still occupies a place of honour but Schwarzkopf has always run it close and among latter day versions Soile Isokoski’s is my favourite.

It is interesting to note that Della Casa and Schwarzkopf followed each other closely on their Strauss path: Della Casa recorded the songs in June 1953 and Schwarzkopf set down her set a mere three months later. In January 1953 and April 1954 Della Casa recorded three scenes from Arabella, partnered with Hilde Güden as Zdenka and Paul Schöffler and Alfred Poell sharing the role of Mandryka; the highlights LP with Schwarzkopf, which is reproduced here in its entirety, was recorded in September 1954. Whereas Arabella was possibly Della Casa’s greatest role, Schwarzkopf never sang it on stage and Della Casa’s interpretation can be heard on two complete recordings, first on Decca in 1958 (with Güden and George London) and then in 1963 (with Rothenberger and Fischer-Dieskau) for DG.

With Della Casa it is first and foremost the creamy beauty of tone and the unaffected naturalness that catches the ear while Schwarzkopf enthrals with her myriad of nuances and inflexions. Both ladies are ideally equipped to do full justice to Strauss’s writing for the voice and if one at times feels that Schwarzkopf is too “knowing”, too “interventionist” – a criticism that has also been directed towards Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – there are so many instances when she moulds a phrase so memorably that one feels that this is the only way to do it. In this early recording the balance between pure singing and insightful interpretation is possibly at an ideal equilibrium whereas on her stereo remake with Szell thirteen years later the pointing of details may dominate on behalf of the vocalism. It goes without saying that the recording quality on that later effort wins hands down but this mono recording is perfectly acceptable and the Philharmonia under Ackermann give full justice to Strauss’s wonderfully autumnal orchestration. Both Della Casa’s and Schwarzkopf’s recordings should be in every respectable collection, preferably together with a further handful – why not some of those on my list.

With Lovro von Matacic at the helm the Philharmonia also extracts all the beauty from the Arabella score. Composed more than twenty years after Der Rosenkavalier it hasn’t quite the exuberance of that music. It is a notch more subdued and with hindsight one could say that it points forward to the even more peeled-off last songs. Still it has a beauty all of its own. There are so many memorable scenes: Arabella’s Er ist der Richtige nicht für mich (tr. 5), the long solo within the Arabella–Zdenka duet which develops into one of Strauss’s most beautiful soprano duos – here Anny Felbermayer is a youthful Zdenka; Arabella’s monologue that closes act 1 (tr. 7) and the Arabella–Mandryka scene in act 2 (tr. 8) where near the end Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein offers such magical singing of magical music. The string-dominated postlude is heavenly. Another solo for Arabella, brings the opera to a fine conclusion. As with the Vier letzte Lieder it is difficult to decide which Arabella I prefer but Schwarzkopf is at least on the same level as Lisa Della Casa. She is surrounded by an exceptionally fine cast, where Joseph Metternich’s sonorous and warm Mandryka is a great asset. Actually he is almost too pleasant sounding for the boor he portrays. Theodor Schlott is an expressive Count Waldner and among Arabella’s suitors we find young rising stars like Murray Dickie, Nicolai Gedda and Walter Berry.

Seeing or hearing Arabella complete can sometimes be a bit frustrating. Listening to these excerpts was a very satisfying experience and those who have not yet made the acquaintance of Arabella are warmly recommended to grab this opportunity. It might turn out to be a lifelong love story. I would have wished for a more detailed synopsis – especially important for newcomers to the score. Not everyone may have the texts to Vier letzte Lieder either.

Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration work has to be admired and I do hope he will continue his important task to preserve valuable recordings from by-gone days. This disc is worthy of a place in any Strauss collection.

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