Strauss: Four Last Songs; Der Rosenkavalier Suite

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COMPOSERS: Strauss
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Four Last Songs; Der Rosenkavalier Suite
PERFORMER: Renée Fleming (soprano) Houston SO/Christoph Eschenbach
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 68539 2
Renée Fleming is ripe for Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Her soprano is in glowing health: firmly focused for the music’s moments of dark intensity, free and robust to achieve easeful lift-off into the high blue skies of ‘Spring’. She has toured the songs with James Levine and the Met Orchestra and they are well under her skin. Here, the Houston Symphony and Eschenbach play with well-toned muscle, offering clear, well-paced support.

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There is so much worthy of commendation here; yet something, barely definable, is missing. On repeated listenings, I can only put it down to the fact that Fleming’s confidence outweighs her sense of wonder at these songs: in the most moving performances, the two qualities tremble slightly in the balance. The soul, as Hermann Hesse would have it, never quite leaves the body, for instance, in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’: both the voice, a little over-deliberate in its enunciation, and the violin soloist, have their feet rather sturdily on the ground.

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With versions by Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp still readily available, all of this does matter. But few listeners will be disappointed by Fleming’s feisty way with five more orchestral songs. Eschenbach’s robustly theatrical Rosenkavalier Suite fills the remaining 25 minutes of the disc. The text translations, like the introductory essay, are in easygoing American English. Hilary Finch