R Strauss: Four Last Songs

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: R Strauss
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: R Strauss
WORKS: Four Last Songs; Ariadne auf Naxos – excerpts; Die Ägyptische Helena – ‘Zweite Brautnacht!’; Verführung, Op. 33 No. 1; Frundliche Vision, Op. 48 No. 1; Winterweihe, Op. 48 No. 4; Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1
PERFORMER: Renée Fleming (soprano); Munich PO/Christian Thielemann
CATALOGUE NO: 478 0647

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Renée Fleming’s first recording of the Last Songs, made in 1996 (on RCA), was distinctly mixed. Her strong, creamy soprano made gorgeous work of Strauss’s lines, without quite rivalling her greatest competitors – not least because of Christoph Eschenbach’s distinctly prosaic conducting. Here Christian Thielemann is a much more natural Straussian, powerful and luxuriant, and Fleming’s voice has gained in distinctiveness and diction, to splendidly dramatic effect, often with a real ‘float’ at the top. Another change is less welcome; Straussian style has a lot to do with breath control, and hers is unduly audible. This may be partly close-miking, but it does rather intrude on what’s otherwise a striking performance – though only in the Songs, not, curiously enough, the couplings. In the opening ‘Frühling’, Fleming sounds a little hurried by Thielemann’s tempo, but thereafter they mesh increasingly well. In ‘September’ she doesn’t seem quite rapt enough, and rather misses the naïve tenderness in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, though she soars beautifully into the transcendent conclusion. ‘Im Abendrot’, with its Tod und Verklärung quote, is irresistible. Likewise the three grief-stricken Ariadne solos, catching their sensual, almost masochistic undercurrents. Thielemann takes ‘Verführung’ and the other Lieder expansively; Fleming responds with burnished tone and keen expression, and the great ecstatic Helena aria makes a magnificent conclusion. Complete recording, anyone? Ultimately Fleming’s new Four Last Songs is not quite the equal of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, or Felicity Lott and Nina Stemme’s more intellectual readings, let alone my ne plus ultra, Gundula Janowitz and Herbert von Karajan (on DG). But it’s a strong contender and a genuine pleasure. Michael Scott Rohan