Strauss: Four Last Songs; Mädchenblumen, Op. 22; Lieder, Op. 27

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WORKS: Four Last Songs; Mädchenblumen, Op. 22; Lieder, Op. 27
PERFORMER: Barbara Hendricks (soprano),; Philadelphia Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch (piano)
Strauss may have favoured the soprano voice, but his songs are far from an exclusively female preserve – not that this is evident from what’s available on disc. In many cases, the texts, particularly of such favourites as ‘Ständchen’ or ‘Cäcilie’, make better sense sung by a man, as Simon Keenlyside’s exemplary recital of early love songs makes plain. His performance is sublimely assured, unaffected and technically versatile as he slips with apparent ease from the robust style of ‘Nichts’ through the seductive chromatic harmonies of ‘Hochzeitlich Lied’ to the high mezza voce required by the mysterious ‘Wasserrose’. He could not wish for a better, or more sensitive, collaborator than Malcolm Martineau.


Barbara Hendricks’s recital spans Strauss’s song-writing career (1885-1948), and contains a mix of the familiar and the rare: ‘Cäcilie’, ‘Morgen!’, ‘Allerseelen’ alongside ‘Die Georgine’ and Mädchenblumen. She sings with authority and lyrical beauty, but the radiance that defined her 1991 Strauss recital (with Ralf Góthoni, EMI CDC 7 54381 2) seems to have faded. And on all but six songs she is hampered by Sawallisch’s mannered piano accompaniment which is slow to the point of hesitant.


However, the Four Last Songs are very much the highlight, thanks to inspired playing from the Philadelphia Orchestra. As conductor, Sawallisch draws a performance that is both expansive and minutely detailed, and the effect is ecstatic. Occasionally the orchestra threatens to overpower Hendricks (partly a fault of the balance: the orchestra is very far forward). And at times she sounds uncharacteristically (though not inappropriately) frail, vibrato-heavy and unsteady in a way that is at odds with the rapturous confidence of the orchestra. But these faults are sporadic, and when she lets go, as in the final stanza of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (‘And the spirit unguarded longs to soar on free wings’), her voice rises and swells with transporting intensity. Claire Wrathall