Strauss, Mahler, Brahms

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms,Mahler,Strauss
LABELS: BBC Legends
WORKS: Vier letzte Lieder,
PERFORMER: Sena Jurinac (soprano), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Geoffrey Parsons (piano); BBC SO/Malcolm Sargent, Philharmonia Orchestra/André Cluytens
CATALOGUE NO: BBCL 4107-2 ADD mono/stereo
Sena Jurinac was a pioneer of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, making the first recording of the cycle in 1951, soon after its premiere by the composer’s chosen singer, Kirsten Flagstad. And in those days, the work was perceived less as the valedictory monument it became in ensuing decades. Even in this 1961 Proms recording, the golden, vibrant singing of the great Yugoslavian soprano captures the youthful rustle of ‘Spring’ and, with Sargent’s robust, stirring orchestral accompanying, makes even ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ an impassioned outpouring of spiritual ecstasy rather than a dream of world-weary nostalgia.

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Of all this cycle’s vintage performers (and they include Janowitz and Schwarzkopf), Jurinac moves me the most; though I have a preference for that early 1951 recording with the Stockholm Philharmonic and Fritz Busch. And now, after decades of somewhat over-indulgent performances, the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski has cleared the air again in her silvery, sentient recording (Ondine) – very nearly my benchmark, were it not for a slight enduring personal preference for Felicity Lott’s most beautifully shaped, warm-hearted performance from 1986.

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On this invaluable addition to the BBC Legends series, the great mezzo Christa Ludwig sings three Strauss songs, including a mesmeric ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ from her remarkable Wigmore Hall recital with Geoffrey Parsons in 1978. And here, too, is Ludwig, 20 years earlier, in her young prime as Mahler’s Wayfaring Lad. She and Janet Baker (with Barbirolli, EMI) are the two outstanding female-voice performances on disc, and this newly available live recording, though racked by wintry audience coughing, is compellingly dark, with a sense of impending tragedy rather than youthful nostalgia. Three Rückert songs, including a magnificent ‘Um Mitternacht’, and a most movingly intimate pair of Brahms songs complete this revelatory compilation. Hilary Finch