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Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs: Brentano Lieder
R. Strauss, Michael Halasz, Wimar Staatskapelle
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs: Brentano Lieder
Genres: Pop, Classical


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All Artists: R. Strauss, Michael Halasz, Wimar Staatskapelle, Ricarda Merbeth
Title: Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs: Brentano Lieder
Members Wishing: 0
Total Copies: 0
Label: Naxos
Original Release Date: 1/1/2008
Re-Release Date: 2/26/2008
Genres: Pop, Classical
Styles: Vocal Pop, Opera & Classical Vocal, Symphonies
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaCD Credits: 1
UPC: 747313028375

CD Reviews

Stunning new entry into an already crowded field
Roderick Keech | Australia | 03/28/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs have become something of a staple in the Soprano repertoire since they were completed in 1948. From Schwarzkopf to Te Kanawa to Fleming, there are an enormous number of recordings available. I have 19, and have found that I am by no means alone in owning multiple interpretations of these magnificent meditations on life, death, and the transition into 'the magic circle of the night'.

My first introduction to these was the 1982 Jessye Norman recording with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. I was completely blown away by not only the incredible beauty and emotion of the songs, but also Norman's spectacular vocal range and control.

To this day the Norman recording, coupled with the Orchestral Songs, remains my favourite.

But this does not stop me investigating as many new recordings as possible. Once again, Naxos, the budget label, have come up trumps with a truly great recording. The German soprano, Ricarda Merbeth sings beautifully, aided by the Staatskapelle Weimar and truly excellent recording in the Weimarhalle.

As is often the case, I am taken aback by the pace of Im Abendrot (8:04 in this recording, 9:54 in the incredibly languid Norman version) yet it only seems slightly rushed in the orchestral introduction, and you quickly forget comparisons once Merbeth's gorgeous voice soars through your speakers.

The Four Last Songs are often coupled with one of Strauss' tone poems, or Orchestral Songs, however Naxos has chosen to include six Brentano-Lieder and two excerpts from the Opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Each selection works well, and the excellence of the orchestra and the recording is consistent.

To all the Four Last Song devotees, this is a strong contender for a new second favourite, and that is no small statement, when considering the luminaries who have recorded these Lieder before. Who knows, you may even find this surpasses all that have come before ? Either way, it is a disc you will want in your collection regardless.

Once again, we owe a great debt to Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos, for delivering first class classical music at an affordable price.

Highly recommended to the fanatics and the new-comers alike.

RStrauss: Four Last Songs - Brentano Songs - Ariadne: Disapp
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 09/20/2008
(2 out of 5 stars)

"I came to this disc with unfairly high expectations, partly derived from the other positive review. I end up with a more negative conclusion than the other reviewer.

For one thing, I had just finally gotten around to the Weimar Staatskapelle's exceptionally worthwhile, committed reading of the Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony led by veteran Naxos Polish conductor Antoni Wit. To my ears it sings right up there in the heights, with the likes of another new super audio version from another regional German band led by the nearly unknown Jonas Alber in Braunschweig. Weimar is another German regional band with a long pedigree, like Braunschweig, and they do just as well overall with the Alpine Symphony, minus the added vivid touches of superaudio surround sound. Now, thanks to Coviello, Braunschweig will be giving us Ein Heldenleben, and one wonders what Weimar also might have in store. In Dresden, Fabio Luisi looks to be doing a new Strauss cycle for Sony BMG, also in superaudio surround mastering.

Seeing the Four Last Songs listed in the Naxos catalog made me smile, because these songs are among the wonders of the voice with orchestra cosmos. Even if you cannot quite stand the whole of Richard Strauss in each and every last ounce of his operas, there is a great deal left to enrich and enjoy among his songs, not least these four last songs. The poets of this cycle are true wisdom figures, Illuminati of the ethereal, and the composer was more than able to give them music worthy of their texts.

Just to read about Ricarda Merbeth's career as I opened up the new disc was also encouraging. I would suppose that she probably hasn't been engaged to sing in Vienna, completely by accident.

Still - disappointing, now that I have listened.

Ms. M's voice almost drove me crazy at first, listening on headphones. Up close and personal, she offers an unpleasant combination of hard steel and oscillating slowish vibrato. Very unpleasant on headphones, that edge combined with vocal wobble. Nervy and unnerving to the point that I pulled off the headphones by the second Brentano song and hoped sleep would put me in a much better mood. Yet again Naxos had snookered me with unfulfilled promise.

Later I thought Ms. M could not have been that bad, so I spun her again on the big home rig in all-channel stereo. The room acoustic did lessen the unpleasant, problematically up close microphonics, and I could tolerate staying through to the end of the side.

Nevertheless, I cannot completely recommend this disc as vocal performance. My particular listener's ears find the hard steel in Ms. Merbeth's voice - think Gabrielle Schnaut or Ghena Dimitrova? - wearing after a while. To the singer's great credit, she stays utterly in tune. Her high notes are spot on, and she reaches low, too. No approximating intonation, but real tuning, then. The rest of her steel-rooted vocal tone however constantly oscillates with a medium to slow beat - not quite the worst Holland Tunnel wobble one could ever hear, but not an unbridled enhancement of vocal timbre either. The last Brentano song defeats even her forceful efforts, though lightening her voice actually helps in passing sung phrases. One still hears her, caught up short by the roulades, vocal skips and trills the composer meant for fond feminine-maternal whimsy.

The Weimar band is not sounding quite up to par, either, at least compared to how well they play under Antoni Wit in the Alpine Symphony on Naxos. Halasz as leader has the real musical and theater background to have been a knowing, wise choice for conductor - but something doesn't quite jell in his partnering of the singer.

If fairly inexpensive alternatives were not so readily available, one could make do with this Naxos outing. But in fact: for just a dollar or two or three more, you can get Jessye Norman accompanied by the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with Szell, Kiri Te Kanawa with Andrew Davis, early Renee Fleming with Eschenbach, Gundula Janowitz under von Karajan, Felicity Lott under Jarvi, and American great soprano Arleen Auger with Vienna under Previn.

If you look a bit deeper you can also find Jane Eaglen under Runnicles, the rare Leontyne Price under Leinsdorf leading the New Philharmonia London, and even deeper in the treasure bins, Teresa Zylis-Gara with Franz Paul Decker leading the Hanover Radio. This last treasure disc on the old boutique Rodolphe label is a total sleeper, but worth the serious hunt to scoop up.

With Renee Fleming about to newly publish her own fresh recording in Munich under Thieleman, and with streaming videos of her tremendous work with Abbado at the Lucerne Festival available on youtube, - well, skipping this outing by Ricarda M and company does not seem like all that much deprivation or loss or sacrifice to the musical industry gods and angels. Given the large amount of vocal and musical talent abounding these days, one cannot exactly surmise just how Naxos keeps aiming so finely at such missed musical targets. Had any producer with a musical ear actually listened to Ricarda Merbeth before they signed the contract to record her in this round? Get Antoni Wit back in Weimar to finish the Strauss orchestral works, doing it right this time, and lure Dame Margaret Price out of retirement for one last Autumnal vocal flourish - she should have recorded the Four Last Songs two or three decades ago, under Abbado in Chicago."
If you can't say anything nice...
Finnamon | New York, NY United States | 07/18/2009
(2 out of 5 stars)

"I just wrote a review of this new(ish) recording, with a lengthy overview of my favorite recordings. Alas, a few accidental keystrokes and the entire thing disappeared. Which I guess fits the evanescence evoked in these songs.

I will try again... Here's what I had to say, in brief:

Ricarda Merbeth's voice is not unattractive, but is possesses an incipient wobble that varies from note to note and leaves me feeling seasick. She gets a phrase right here and there (including some at the end of each of the last two songs), but it's simply not enough.

If she's able to work out this serious vocal problem, she may yet prove equal to the challenge these songs present.

In the meantime, there are dozens (DOZENS!) of other performances that are better than this one.

Della Casa (Böhm) on Decca
Jurinac (Busch) on EMI
Janowitz (Karajan on DG; Haitink [live] in DG [the Original Masters box and Philips)
Ameling (Sawallisch in the 5-CD set "Live Concertopnahmen 1957-1991")
Schwarzkopf (live 1956, Karajan and Philharmonia) on EMI
Isokoski (Janowski) on Ondine
Harteros (Luisi) on Sony-BMG
Söderström (both versions, on EMI [unreleased on CD to my knowledge] and BBC Legends)
even Sylvia Sass with Lukacs on Hungaraton (a fascinating version in spite of a few wobbly notes here and there)

Versions I don't like so much:
either Schwarzkopf studio recording
Jessye Norman (the most stultifyingly slow tempi I have ever heard)
Kiri (I don't know the Solti one, but in my younger years I said that her singing on the CBS recording with Andrew Davis, however glorious, was so uninvolved as to sound as if she were "adjusting her girdle")
Renée Fleming (nothing to say here except that her self-indulgence trumps any other singer I've ever heard)
Rothenberger (I love her and I looked for this Previn/EMI recording for years, but was profoundly disappointed)
Popp/Tennstedt on EMI (she is at her most "sausage-y" here)

In closing I must mention my two absolute favorite versions of these songs. Both of them are sung by Lucia Popp. The live 1979 version with Solti in Chicago (video available on youtube) is the most vocally perfect rendition these songs have ever received. Popp's radiance of voice, clarity of diction, and dignity of bearing make for an experience as close to perfection as I've ever experienced.

The other version is from 1993, again Lucia Popp, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO. This is one of the last (if not the last) of Popp's studio recordings. The recording was made in May, she died in November. I don't know if she or anyone else involved knew she was dying, but once past a rather rocky "Frühling" she moves into another sphere, taking MTT and the entire orchestra with her. The voice isn't perfect, but her view into the beyond is unforgettable.

So, Ricarda Merbeth has a way to go to attain the heights reached by any of these other singers (even the ones whose versions I don't like!)

I wish her luck! I think she can do it, and I hope she does."