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Leonard Link, October 2008

Ricarda Merbeth, soprano - a Naxos discovery in Strauss

The super-budget Naxos label is constantly coming up with surprises, either in composer of whom nobody had ever heard, unusual repertory by "the masters," uncovering the arcane corners of the repertory, or featuring new performers of high quality in their earliest ventures into recording. Here's a Naxos discovery worth sharing: German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, the featured soloist in a new disc of music by Richard Strauss, joined by Michael Halasz and the Weimer Staatskapelle.

There is the expected Four Last Songs, and the relatively neglected Brentano-Lieder, Op. 68. That accounts for about 52 minutes. They fill out the disc to the hour mark with two orchestral excerpts from Strauss's opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. This is the one questionable aspect of the programming. There are scores of Strauss songs for soprano and orchestra, and they should have selected a few of these to fill out the disc. Ms Merbeth is so good that we should not be denied the pleasure of more of her company.

I have many recordings of the Four Last Songs in my collection, by some of the leading sopranos of our time, working with top orchestras and conductors, but I don't think any of them is more satisfying than this new Naxos. The orchestra playing is sumptuous, well caught by the engineers in the Weimarhalle in August 2006. Ms Merbeth's singing is expressive and well balanced with the orchestra. She hits her high notes without strain, and is heard at all times. The requisite emotion pours forth in the autumnal Four Last Songs, while the Brentano-lieder, an earlier work, are suitably lighter in texture.

As is usual these days, Naxos does not give us texts in the insert leaflet, and I haven't checked to see whether they are available from the label's website [They are available: click here – Ed]

For me, this is a very worthwhile release—one that migrates quickly to the iPod, to join the Schwarzkopf/Szell recording of the Four Last Songs.

Mike Ashman
Gramophone, May 2008

Editor's Choice

A fine singer more than a match to the demands Strauss makes on her

Ricarda Merbeth, a regular Marschallin in Vienna and exponent of other big Strauss roles in Europe, has also been Bayreuth's Elizabeth for the past six years – just as Pauline de Ahna, Strauss's wife and first muse of song, once was. There's something both idiomatic and old-fashioned about these performances. Here is neither the ample, creamy sound of a Jessye Norman nor the studied, polished art of the Schwarzkopf/Legge camp nore the quasi-vocalise of a Janowitz, but rather a welcome, word-conscious directness and emotive agility that is natural and refreshing, and reminiscent of an earlier school of Strauss-singing – Lotte Lehmann, Viorica Ursuleac.

The Op 68 Brentano Lieder of 1918 – never programmed enough – are hair-raisingly difficult for the singer in terms of both tessitura and line in their original piano versions. Given in the complex (and quite weighty) orchestrations to which Strauss devoted much energy in later life, they become even more demanding. "Lied der Frauen wenn die Männer im Kriege sind" ("Women's Song when the Men are away at War") is eight minutes-plus of high drama in instrumental clothing that deliberately harks back to Salome, Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten (it's also highly possible that the events of 1933, the year of this version, impinged on the emotional temperature). The five other songs in the group become enticing orchestral children of their contemporary operas Daphne and Capriccio.

Merbeth is supremely well prepared and on top of this repertoire, and the Weimar orchestra, cliché to say but true, have the sound of Strauss's music still in their blood. Halász, a regular collaborator of the soprano's (and who has led several previous Naxos triumphs), beds down in the tempi of "Im Abendrot" a little too much but his singer can more than handle that. Natural, unplush sound, aptly matching the music-making. I would have preferred more Merbeth to the orchestra-alone Ariadne excerpts, but this would be an essential performance at prices more lavish than Naxos's.

Mike Smith
Fine Music, April 2008

Ricarda Merbeth has appeared in a number of Strauss and Wagner roles and obviously has a voice of such power and sensitivity that it fulfills the myriad emotions demanded by such music. Her tone lends warmth to these songs, one can almost feel the residual glow of the setting sun in Im Abendrot and the heart-breaking realization that perhaps, after sharing all life’s troubles and joys, hand in hand, this is finally the approach of our own death. The delicate balancing of the orchestra with the gentle vocal entries allows us to wallow in the poignancy of the imagery. The lesser-known Brentano-Lieder and Aridne auf Naxos are a bonus. I would buy this CD on the strength of the sublime Four Last Songs alone.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, March 2008

"Ricarda Merbeth has a warm and sturdy voice.... I enjoyed her fine rendition of the second song September which is movingly sung together with an impressive horn solo. The third song Beim Schlafengehen is perhaps her finest performance of the set, aptly displaying a fine articulation. The orchestral accompaniment is of a high quality and the violin solo is played with immediacy and sensitivity. In Im Abendrot, the last and longest of the Four Last Songs, Merbeth demonstrates considerable craft in a highly affecting performance." [...]"By comparison the set of Six Brentano-Lieder Op. 68 has been neglected in the recording studios. They date from after the Great War in 1918 and are to poems by Clemens Brentano. Despite some lack of vocal security [Merbeth] is fresh and expressive, providing a splendidly heart-rending conclusion." [...]

"Soprano Ricarda Merbeth performs an enjoyable recital....Throughout both cycles of the Four Last Songs and the Brentano-Lieder, and the Ariadne auf Naxosexcerpts Halász conducts stylish performances that provide excellent support for the enthusiastic soloist."

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2008

There are two very differing ways to approach the Four Last Songs, available recordings almost equally divided between those who see them as orchestrated lieder, and those who take them as an extension to his operas. The German soprano, Ricarda Merbeth, is in operatic mode, her appearance on stage at the Vienna State Opera in some of Richard Strauss’s most sumptuous scores and Wagnerian performances at Beyreuth have created a voice that is fulsome. With a generous vibrato she takes the music straight off the chest, her approach robust and in the third song uses the double meaning that it could be the sleep of death. Thirty years earlier, in 1918, Strauss started work on six settings of poems by Clemens Brentano, the eventual orchestration only completed in 1940. They are very different to the Four Last Songs and without question these are orchestrated lieder. Merbeth thins her voice where she can, the music more technically demanding and originally written with Elizabeth Schumann’s agile voice in mind. The disc is completed by two orchestral extracts from the opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. Throughout the playing of the Weimar Staatskapelle only reinforces that this is today one of the great German orchestras, and with Michael Halasz’s long experience in the opera house, the music’s pulse is always ideal. My collection of recordings of the Four Last Song is overflowing with many great singers, but new ones are always of interest.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, February 2008

"Ricarda Merbeth’s readings are undoubtedly thrilling and the complete set of the Brentano-Lieder with her tremendous reading of Lied der Frauen lends further importance to this disc."

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