REGISTER NOW AND GET
• 5 FREE tracks! • 101 tracks for $9.99
ClassicsOnline Home » STRAUSS, R.: 4 Last Songs / 6 Lieder / Ariadne auf Naxos (excerpts)
A year before his death in 1948, Richard Strauss composed his masterpiece, Four Last Songs, expressing a calm acceptance of the inevitability of his own death. Meditations on life, death and the transition into ‘the magic circle of the night’, the songs among the most haunting music ever written. In contrast the six Brentano-Lieder are playful, incandescent and virtuosic settings of Clemens Brentano's deeply romantic poems.
By Leonard Link
Ricarda Merbeth, soprano - a Naxos discovery in Strauss
The super-budget Naxos label is constantly coming up with surprises, either in composer of whom nobody had ever heard, unusual repertory by "the masters," uncovering the arcane corners of the repertory, or featuring new performers of high quality in their earliest ventures into recording. Here's a Naxos discovery worth sharing: German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, the featured soloist in a new disc of music by Richard Strauss, joined by Michael Halasz and the Weimer Staatskapelle.
There is the expected Four Last Songs, and the relatively neglected Brentano-Lieder, Op. 68. That accounts for about 52 minutes. They fill out the disc to the hour mark with two orchestral excerpts from Strauss's opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. This is the one questionable aspect of the programming. There are scores of Strauss songs for soprano and orchestra, and they should have selected a few of these to fill out the disc. Ms Merbeth is so good that we should not be denied the pleasure of more of her company.
I have many recordings of the Four Last Songs in my collection, by some of the leading sopranos of our time, working with top orchestras and conductors, but I don't think any of them is more satisfying than this new Naxos. The orchestra playing is sumptuous, well caught by the engineers in the Weimarhalle in August 2006. Ms Merbeth's singing is expressive and well balanced with the orchestra. She hits her high notes without strain, and is heard at all times. The requisite emotion pours forth in the autumnal Four Last Songs, while the Brentano-lieder, an earlier work, are suitably lighter in texture.
As is usual these days, Naxos does not give us texts in the insert leaflet, and I haven't checked to see whether they are available from the label's website [They are available: click here – Ed]
For me, this is a very worthwhile release—one that migrates quickly to the iPod, to join the Schwarzkopf/Szell recording of the Four Last Songs.
By Mike Ashman
The Op 68 Brentano Lieder of 1918 – never programmed enough – are hair-raisingly difficult for the singer in terms of both tessitura and line in their original piano versions. Given in the complex (and quite weighty) orchestrations to which Strauss devoted much energy in later life, they become even more demanding. "Lied der Frauen wenn die Männer im Kriege sind" ("Women's Song when the Men are away at War") is eight minutes-plus of high drama in instrumental clothing that deliberately harks back to Salome, Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten (it's also highly possible that the events of 1933, the year of this version, impinged on the emotional temperature). The five other songs in the group become enticing orchestral children of their contemporary operas Daphne and Capriccio.
Merbeth is supremely well prepared and on top of this repertoire, and the Weimar orchestra, cliché to say but true, have the sound of Strauss's music still in their blood. Halász, a regular collaborator of the soprano's (and who has led several previous Naxos triumphs), beds down in the tempi of "Im Abendrot" a little too much but his singer can more than handle that. Natural, unplush sound, aptly matching the music-making. I would have preferred more Merbeth to the orchestra-alone Ariadne excerpts, but this would be an essential performance at prices more lavish than Naxos's.
By Mike Smith
Ricarda Merbeth has appeared in a number of Strauss and Wagner roles and obviously has a voice of such power and sensitivity that it fulfills the myriad emotions demanded by such music. Her tone lends warmth to these songs, one can almost feel the residual glow of the setting sun in Im Abendrot and the heart-breaking realization that perhaps, after sharing all life’s troubles and joys, hand in hand, this is finally the approach of our own death. The delicate balancing of the orchestra with the gentle vocal entries allows us to wallow in the poignancy of the imagery. The lesser-known Brentano-Lieder and Aridne auf Naxos are a bonus. I would buy this CD on the strength of the sublime Four Last Songs alone.
By David Denton
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Four Last Songs • Brentano-Lieder
The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss was born in Munich, the son of a distinguished horn-player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family. He had a sound general education there, while studying music under teachers of obvious distinction. Before he left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed some success as a composer, continued during his brief period at Munich University with the composition of concertos for violin and for French horn and a sonata for cello and piano. By the age of 21 he had been appointed assistant conductor to the well-known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von Bülow, whom he succeeded in the following year.
In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series of tone-poems that seemed to extend to the utmost limit the extra-musical content of the form. Meanwhile he was establishing his reputation as a conductor, directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a season and taking appointments in Munich and then in 1898 at the opera in Berlin, where he later became Court Composer.
The new century brought a renewed attention to opera, after earlier relative failure. Salome in Dresden in 1905 was followed in 1909 by Elektra, the start of a continuing collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), a romantic opera set in the Vienna of Mozart, was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed by ten further operas, ending only with Capriccio, mounted at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942. Strauss's final years were clouded by largely unfounded accusations of collaboration with the musical policies of the Third Reich and after 1945 he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, returning to his own house at Garmisch only four months before his death in 1949.
Strauss had written songs throughout his life and during the spring and summer of 1948, still in Switzerland, he wrote what came to be described as the Four Last Songs, although he actually wrote one more as a private gift to the Czech singer Maria Jeritza, who had created the rôles of Ariadne and of the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. It was during his time in Switzerland that Strauss had come across the poems of the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse, black-listed in Germany in 1943, a reflection of the earlier hostility there in 1914 to his pacifist views and beliefs in human spirituality, Weltglaube. Strauss completed three settings of Hesse's poems. The first of these, 'Frühling' (Spring), a relatively early poem by Hesse, is a romantic evocation of the season, 'In dämmrigen Grüften / träumte ich lang / von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften, / von deinem Duft und Vogelsang'(In dark vaults / I long dreamed / of your trees and blue skies, / of your fragrance and bird-song), echoed in diverse harmonies and always with an element of the autumnal, with its rhapsodic elongation of syllables, the bird-song suggested by the trills of the flute and the feeling of awe in the treatment of words like 'Wunder, wie ein Wunder vor mir'(like a wonder before me) and the final 'selige, selige Gegenwart'(blessed, blessed presence). The song is dedicated to his friend and biographer Willi Schuh and his wife.
The second song of the group and last to be composed, 'September', completed in September 1948, is imbued with feeling of the end of summer, 'Der Garten trauert / kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen'(The garden mourns / cold falls the rain on the flowers). The third line, 'Der Sommer schauert / still seinem Ende entgegen'(Summer shudders / quietly meeting its end) introduces a new figure, a rhythmic motif that recurs, to find a place in the horn of the postlude.
'Beim Schlafengehen' (At going to sleep) was completed in July 1948. The poem, written at a time of difficulty in Hesse's life, suggests the sleep of death and freedom in the magic circle of the night, an idea prefigured in the violin solo that precedes the final verse of the poem.
'Im Abendrot' (In Twilight), written in May, but rightly placed last, is a setting of Joseph von Eichendorff, the only solo song of Strauss to use one of his poems, although Eichendorff, with his outstanding lyrical qualities, had appealed strongly both to Schumann and to Wolf, among others. The words of the poem Strauss chose are a clear reflection of his mood, as he and his wife neared the end of their lives, 'Wir sind durch Not und Freude / gegangen Hand in Hand'(We have gone through trouble and joy / hand in hand). The song unfolds with that poignancy of which Strauss was a master, posing the final question, 'ist dies etwa der Tod?'(Is this perhaps death?).
It was in 1918, after a break of some years, that Strauss, perhaps with the idea of Elisabeth Schumann's voice in mind, returned to the composition of songs, notably with his setting of six poems by Clemens Brentano, a leading romantic and collaborator with Achim von Arnim on the collection of folk-songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. He orchestrated the demanding Lied der Frauen wenn die Männer im Kriege sind (Song of the Women when the Men are at the War) in 1933, but it was only in the summer of 1940, when he had started work on his last opera Capriccio, that he orchestrated the other five songs.
The first of the set, 'An die Nacht'(To the Night), addresses holy night, heaven's peace enclosed in stars. It starts with what is to be an important motif, heard again accompanying the reference to the spear of Bjelbog, Czech god of light, and throughout the song. 'Ich wollt' ein Sträusslein binden'(I wanted to make a little garland) is less challenging in its modulations, opening with an important motif. The lover responds to the flower's plea not to be picked, and he is abandoned by his beloved; there are troubles in love, and things can be no different. The third song, 'Säusle, liebe Myrte!'(Rustle, dear myrtle!), in which the girl sings to her sleeping lover, depicts the poetic imagery of the verse, the sound of the turtle-dove, the passing clouds in the sky, and the chirping of the cricket, and there is extended figuration marking the words 'schlaf, träume, flieg'(sleep, dream, fly) in the last verse. In 'Als mir dein Lied erklang'(When I heard your song), a song of passionate variety, the motif heard first when the voice enters with the words 'Dein Lied erklang'returns with the recurrence of the same words, reaching a final prolonged climax in conclusion. 'Amor!', with an added bar of introduction and a brief anticipation of the vocal line by the oboe, calls for coloratura singing in the melismatic prolongation of the first syllable of 'Flügeln, Flammen'and 'lachelt'in the lines 'Mit dem kleinen Flügel fachelt / In die Flammen er und lachelt'(With his little wings he fans / in the flames and smiles), its mood reflected further in the final phrases and closing trills as the cunning child, Cupid, smiles. The most demanding of the six songs is the final 'Lied der Frauen'(Song of the Women) with its evocation of the wives of sailors, shepherds and soldiers, as their men encounter danger, and their final resignation at death in the biblical words, 'Der Herr hat genommen, genommen, Gelobt sei der Name des Herrn!' (The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away; praised be the name of the Lord).
Strauss completed the first version of his collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos) in 1912 and a revised version in 1916. The original work had been based on Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme in which the arriviste Monsieur Jourdain displays his wealth and comic lack of taste. The original version included a German version of Molière, followed by the entertainment Monsieur Jourdain had commanded. In the second version the first act is replaced by a Prologue, after which the opera is staged, an opera seria interspersed with characters from the commedia dell'arte. The tragic heroine Ariadne, a Cretan princess, is abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos, where she finally meets Bacchus, to be united with him. The introspection of the heroine is interrupted by the intervention of Zerbinetta and her commedia dell'arte companions, who provide an ironic contrast. Both elements of the opera are represented in the orchestral extracts. The overture befits the seeming tragedy, while the dance scene represents the attempts of the comedians to divert Ariadne, and Zerbinetta's expected romance with Harlequin.
Sung texts and translations are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570283.htm
Last Albums Viewed
STRAUSS, R.: 4 Last Songs / 6 Lieder / Ariadne auf...