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My favorites:

Janowitz/Karajan. Usually regarded as the best recording of Letzte Lieder ever. Nothing else to say, I can only spoil it for you.


Norman/Masur. Enormous soaring voice perfect for the immensity of Strauss' vision here.
Schwarzkopf/Szell. I'm not a fan of Schwarzkopf's voice, but here it works out well, probably because the tired, ragged quality of it suggests the mood of repose and sunset behind the pieces, going to sleep...
Popp/Tennstedt. Cannot go wrong with Miss Poppova. :)

Standard operatic sopranos like Dame Kiri, L.Price, Caballe ... can't seem to do these pieces justice, for various reasons.
Lisa della Casa has an old recording which is sometimes exquisite, but the sound quality is low and her voice overall too thin. Definitely worth a listen though.

Haven't heard: Flagstad, Mattila.
 

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I see that we are overwhelmed with Strauss fans here.
I do not disagree with Serbenthum's assessment of the Janowitz/Karajan recording,it is really unrivalled as an orchestral performance and vocally too.
Vier Letze Lieder is the last will and testament of one of the supreme lieder composers written in his 83/84 th years.
You should undoubtedly own more than one version of the work and this is where I differ.
The cycles's first conductor was Furtwaengler with Kirsten Flagstad,the venue was London's Royal Albert Hall and the date May 22nd,1950.Flagstad was 55 at the time and in wonderful vocal form. It was recorded live and issued by Cetra and is available on CD,it is a must but allowance has to be made for the age of the recording.
The first commercial recording was Lisa Della Casa's with the VPO/Boehm 1953. This is the version from which a whole generation learned to love the work. I hear none of the criticisms that Serbenthum lists ,I have the LP but it is now on CD with Strauss operatic items, It is a moving experience from a famous Straussian and is sung with a silver purity of tone.
Other performances that should be heard are
Sena Jurinac/Stokholm Phil./Fritz Busch,1951,live. One of the greatest Strauss--Mozart sopranos and a very fine conductor who was a close acquaintance of Strauss. Her voice is silver and gold and her interpretation is among the most touching.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Berlin Radio S.O./Szell. 1965. This recording has been widely praised and regarded as almost holy writ in some quarters. But some, as always with this artist,hurl accusations of overstylization and refinement.I am not a Schwarzkopf fan but on this occasion do not see such strictures as valid ,I find her magnificent and Szell's support fine-grained in every detail.
Teresa Stich-Randall/Vienna Radio Orch./Somogy. One of my favourites from a famous Sophie in "Rosenkavalier", unfortunately this is a Westminter issue and not presently available.
Kiri Te Kanawa/LSO/Davis,1979.Lyrical sweetness,unmannered phrasing and enunciation and unassailable technical security plus full-throated ease. The LSO is on top form.
 
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I like the Janowitz/Karajan the best; I "imprinted" on it.

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I also enjoyed seeing Renée Fleming sing them on PBS. I really enjoyed seeing the emotion on her face. I have this on CD as well, and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf/Szell.
 
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The cycles's first conductor was Furtwaengler with Kirsten Flagstad,the venue was London's Royal Albert Hall and the date May 22nd,1950.Flagstad was 55 at the time and in wonderful vocal form. It was recorded live and issued by Cetra and is available on CD,it is a must but allowance has to be made for the age of the recording.
There are some scratchy uploads on Youtube which claim to be this premiere recording. Flagstad is in great form, but the sound quality is just regrettable. :(

Actually I'd retract my criticism of Della Casa recording. It's up there with the best and Lisa is of course a great Straussian.
 

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I first heard the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf one, which is great, but the one I keep coming back to is the Eva Marton Lp I suppose I just connect with her voice more.

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Janowitz / Karajan. Superbly sung and conducted.
Also have Schwarzkopf's early reading with HvK which wasn't released at time. Also Della casa / bohm which has historical authority but always strikes me as being too fast. Wonderful singing though.
 

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A question about Schwarzkopf's recording of the VLL with Szell -

This has been issued by EMI/Warner several times, with different transfers.

The first one, 1985:

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GROC version, 1997:

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and the most recent Masters incarnation, 2011:

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Does anyone have an opinion about which transfer sounds best? I'm not a big fan, but I'm a firm believer that one should have recordings that one doesn't like in the best possible sound. :devil:
 

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Isn't the 2011 issue the same 1997 remaster? I believe it is. Although there was a Japanese issue out in 2011 on Hybrid SACD, as well, which has to be DSD, doesn't it? So there may be a DSD remaster on CD too, but I'm not sure about that. If so, that's the one I'd go for, personally (assuming you don't want to splurge for the Hybrid SACD). Here are several Japanese issues to sample & compare, sound-wise:

2011 Japanese Hybrid SACD:

https://www.amazon.co.jp/R・シュトラウス-4...9300&sr=8-35&keywords=strauss+four+last+songs

2011 Japanese CD release:

https://www.amazon.co.jp/R-シュトラウス-4...9300&sr=8-27&keywords=strauss+four+last+songs

2014 Japanese CD release:

https://www.amazon.co.jp/R-シュトラウス-歌..._rd_t=40701&psc=1&refRID=S66RAQXDB449F62G8QE4

There's also a more recent 2015 Japanese CD release, but it uses the 1997 remaster. So the Japanese CDs may all be the 1997 remaster, except for the hybrid SACD, which is surely DSD? Which begs the question: Is there any sound difference between the DSD hybrid SACD and the 1997 remaster on CD? Or, do any of the several Japanese CDs (issued in 2011 & after), or any of the American or UK CD issues from the same time period, use the DSD remaster that was the basis for the 2011 Japanese hybrid SACD?

Unfortunately, I can't answer these questions, sorry.

To complicate matters even further, I remember once comparing the 1997 remaster to the 1985 CD and being unsure whether it really did represent an improvement, sound-wise. I recall that I was glad I had both, since I couldn't make up my mind.

You've asked a difficult question to answer, Bill. I hope someone can do better than I have.

P.S. Frustratingly, there's no review posted for the hybrid SACD issue on HR Audio.net (which is unusual), nor in the single layer SACD issue either, but there might be one from the various vendors whose links are provided, if you wish to look through them (I haven't done so):

https://www.hraudio.net/showmusic.php?title=7640#related
 

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There's a whole thread already devoted to these wonderful songs, and in it I compared five of my favourite recordings (Schwarzkopf/Szell, Popp/Tennstedt, Janowitz/Karajan, Fleming/Thielemann and Norman, Masur). You can read it here https://www.talkclassical.com/33688-richard-strauss-four-last-10.html#post980552

My only difference in opinion since then would be to place Popp ahead of Janowitz, for paying more attention to the meaning of the songs. Schwarzkopf/Szell remains my favourite though.
 

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A question about Schwarzkopf's recording of the VLL with Szell -

This has been issued by EMI/Warner several times, with different transfers.

The first one, 1985:

View attachment 103986

GROC version, 1997:

View attachment 103987

and the most recent Masters incarnation, 2011:

View attachment 103988

Does anyone have an opinion about which transfer sounds best? I'm not a big fan, but I'm a firm believer that one should have recordings that one doesn't like in the best possible sound. :devil:
There's yet another transfer in Warner's recent Schwarzkopf Recitals box, which reproduces the programming from the original LP, and omits the extra orchestral songs she recorded with the LSO a few years later. I don't know all the transfers, but the first one on EMI, and the most recent are both excellent. Both the LP and CD were always amongst EMI's best sellers.

Unlike you, Schwarzkopf/Szell remains my favourite version. So many singers simply bask in the beauty of the music and the vocal line, whilst paying too little heed to the meaning of the texts. Schwarzkopf's reading reminds me of their deeper meaning.
 

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The Four Last Songs are some of my very favourite pieces in all of classical music. I've collected over 40 different recordings on cd over the last few years.

For some reason, I don't connect with the famous Janowitz/Karajan recording. It's beautiful, for sure, but Janowitz' voice is a little too 'instrumental' for me, if that makes sense. I miss a certain connection with the text. In that regard, I very much like the Schwarzkopf/Szell, which is more 'relaxed' than the earlier recording with Ackermann, in which Schwarzkopf seems to want to make the most of every single syllable.

Jessye Norman reigns supreme in her recording with Masur. The tempo they choose for 'Im Abendrot' is too slow and I miss a certain forward movement in the orchestra, but Norman makes it work, and the phrase "so tief im Abendrot" at the climax of the song is simply the most gorgeous thing I have ever heard. Goosebumps every time.

Her voice is fresher in the earlier recording with Andrew Davis, but to my ears, Kiri Te Kanawa is better served by Solti in her second recording. The text comes across better, and I love Solti's way with the orchestra. The brass section especially sounds better than in many other performances.

Renée Fleming being one of my favourite singers, I have to sing her praises here. The Thielemann recording is the one to have. As with Te Kanawa, she sounds more involved, and I prefer Thielemann over Eschenbach by a lot.

I've recently found myself impressed with Anja Harteros, live with Jansons and the BRSO, I like it better than her earlier recording with Fabio Luisi. The vibrato tends to be a little strong here and there, but she scales her voice back appropriately at the right moments.

For a dark horse, listen to Aga Mikolaj, who apparently studied with Schwarzkopf. Beautiful voice that soars in the big moments.



Whatever you do, stay away from Anna Netrebko's horrible rendition, although Barenboim does wonderful things.
 

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The Four Last Songs are some of my very favourite pieces in all of classical music. I've collected over 40 different recordings on cd over the last few years.

For some reason, I don't connect with the famous Janowitz/Karajan recording. It's beautiful, for sure, but Janowitz' voice is a little too 'instrumental' for me, if that makes sense. I miss a certain connection with the text. In that regard, I very much like the Schwarzkopf/Szell, which is more 'relaxed' than the earlier recording with Ackermann, in which Schwarzkopf seems to want to make the most of every single syllable.

Jessye Norman reigns supreme in her recording with Masur. The tempo they choose for 'Im Abendrot' is too slow and I miss a certain forward movement in the orchestra, but Norman makes it work, and the phrase "so tief im Abendrot" at the climax of the song is simply the most gorgeous thing I have ever heard. Goosebumps every time.

Her voice is fresher in the earlier recording with Andrew Davis, but to my ears, Kiri Te Kanawa is better served by Solti in her second recording. The text comes across better, and I love Solti's way with the orchestra. The brass section especially sounds better than in many other performance.

Renée Fleming being one of my favourite singers, I have to sing her praises here. The Thielemann recording is the one to have. As with Te Kanawa, she sounds more involved, and I prefer Thielemann over Eschenbach by a lot.

I've recently found myself impressed with Anja Harteros, live with Jansons and the BRSO, I like it better than her earlier recording with Fabio Luisi. The vibrato tends to be a little strong here and there, but she scales her voice back appropriately at the right moments.

For a dark horse, listen to Aga Mikolaj, who apparently studied with Schwarzkopf. Beautiful voice that soars in the big moments.



Whatever you do, stay away from Anna Netrebko's horrible rendition, although Barenboim does wonderful things.
You have similar feelings to mine, except that I find Solti too fast, and Kiri is still a little under-characterised. On the other hand, the stumbling block for me on the Norman recording is Masur's slow speeds. It starts slow and just gets slower.

I listened to the Harteros/Jansons recording only recently, and she sounds a bit effortful to me; also a little unsteady in places. However the orchestral realisation under Jansons is, I think, one of the best I've ever heard.

I don't know the Mikolaj; in fact the name is completely new to me. I will have to seek it out.
 

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The Four Last Songs are some of my very favourite pieces in all of classical music. I've collected over 40 different recordings on cd over the last few years.

For some reason, I don't connect with the famous Janowitz/Karajan recording. It's beautiful, for sure, but Janowitz' voice is a little too 'instrumental' for me, if that makes sense. I miss a certain connection with the text. In that regard, I very much like the Schwarzkopf/Szell, which is more 'relaxed' than the earlier recording with Ackermann, in which Schwarzkopf seems to want to make the most of every single syllable.

Jessye Norman reigns supreme in her recording with Masur. The tempo they choose for 'Im Abendrot' is too slow and I miss a certain forward movement in the orchestra, but Norman makes it work, and the phrase "so tief im Abendrot" at the climax of the song is simply the most gorgeous thing I have ever heard. Goosebumps every time.

Her voice is fresher in the earlier recording with Andrew Davis, but to my ears, Kiri Te Kanawa is better served by Solti in her second recording. The text comes across better, and I love Solti's way with the orchestra. The brass section especially sounds better than in many other performance.

Renée Fleming being one of my favourite singers, I have to sing her praises here. The Thielemann recording is the one to have. As with Te Kanawa, she sounds more involved, and I prefer Thielemann over Eschenbach by a lot.

I've recently found myself impressed with Anja Harteros, live with Jansons and the BRSO, I like it better than her earlier recording with Fabio Luisi. The vibrato tends to be a little strong here and there, but she scales her voice back appropriately at the right moments.

For a dark horse, listen to Aga Mikolaj, who apparently studied with Schwarzkopf. Beautiful voice that soars in the big moments.



Whatever you do, stay away from Anna Netrebko's horrible rendition, although Barenboim does wonderful things.
Can't really disagree with you on your comments and you are absolutely right about Netrebko. I bought it thinking how bad could it be? Little did I know!!
 

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You have similar feelings to mine, except that I find Solti too fast, and Kiri is still a little under-characterised. On the other hand, the stumbling block for me on the Norman recording is Masur's slow speeds. It starts slow and just gets slower.

I listened to the Harteros/Jansons recording only recently, and she sounds a bit effortful to me; also a little unsteady in places. However the orchestral realisation under Jansons is, I think, one of the best I've ever heard.

I don't know the Mikolaj; in fact the name is completely new to me. I will have to seek it out.
Agreed about Harteros, she does sound a little stretched. Her enunciation is better than most though. As a whole, I found the recording a pleasure to listen to, which indeed has a lot to do with Jansons. And yes, Solti is speedy, but not so much as Böhm with Della Casa or Janowski with Isokoski (both recordings I like a lot as well).

Do let me know what you think of Mikolaj, once you've had a chance to listen to it. She's in the Fleming/Te Kanawa field when it comes to voice type and repertoire, but with a slight hint of a slavic accent. I heard her perform with the Concertgebouw last year and was impressed again. The performance that was later released on cd:

 

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Can't really disagree with you on your comments and you are absolutely right about Netrebko. I bought it thinking how bad could it be? Little did I know!!
Netrebko should stay far away from the German repertoire, not only is she unidiomatic in the music, but completely unintelligible too!
 

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I really like the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recording, mostly because it's the only one I've listened to. :)
There are three Schwarzkopf commercially issued recordings with Schwarzkopf; the early mono under Ackermann, a live version from the Royal Festival Hall under Karajan and the stereo recording under Szell, of which the Szell would be my preference, and indeed remains my favourite of all recordings of the songs.

That said, there are others which I enjoy, amongst them Norman/Masur, Popp/Tennstedt, Fleming/Thielemann and Janowitz/Karajan. Give them a try.
 

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Interestingly I find this the weakest of the bunch mentioned....her phrasing is awful especially in the ....freien Flügen schweben...portion of Beim Schlafgehen (few do get it right mind!) ......no finesse when she cuts the note off for her huge gasp of breath and sounds like she is fighting the orchestra and their direction.
fine singer no doubt but this work is too delicate for here I feel....just my opinion... :)
 
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