Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder; Orchestral Songs

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COMPOSERS: Strauss
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Vier letzte Lieder; Orchestral Songs
PERFORMER: Karita Mattila (soprano); Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 445 182-2
For those seduced by Jessye Norman’s extraordinary and voluptuous performance of Strauss’s valedictory masterpieces (Philips,1982), any new recording is hard to hear with innocence. And yet Karita Matilla, who has transfixed world audiences with her stage performances of Verdi and Wagner, was one soprano whose reading of the Four Last Songs I eagerly awaited. Unlike Kiri Te Kawana, one knew she would never diminish these languid, expansive melodies with any tightness or rushing: she is equal to their grandeur. And unlike the inimitable Shwarzkopf, there would be no hectic edge, but an effortless, open quality, soulful depths and a sincerity of intent to the meaning. Also, unlike Norman, there would be no garishness to the delivery, where the sheer gorgeous weight of the voice overrides even what is exceptional playing by the Leipzig Gewandhaus. And again, unlike Norman’s recording, the producers here have not interfered with or indulged Mattila: the balance between her and the Berlin Philharmonic reflects a live acoustic. It has an honest, human scale. She does not overwhelm, but rather draws the listener in – particularly in ‘September’, where voice and horn are controlled in a magical hush, or in the bell-like opening to ‘Im Abendrot’, bang in the middle of her best range.

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Mattilla does not let her listeners down. She must be near or at the height of her powers, but one cannot help feeling that she will record this again, and better. There is a loosening and a mellowing still to come. And she will never quite produce that sharp Schwarzkopf German accent, with which she colours and shapes the words, though that is a matter of taste. Also, the Berliners under Abbado, while magnificent, do not quite match the natural flexibility, the luminosity in those heavenly rising scales in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, of the Gewandhaus under Masur. And yet this recording is special, not least for the other orchestral songs contained on it, including the ‘Song of Apollo’s Priest’, Op. 33/ 2, the long and complex ‘Verführing’ and lovely ‘Frühlingsfeier’, on neither the Norman nor Schwarzkopf recordings.