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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.
I have all these recordings above and from them I would rate the Popp the highest....but I would like to add another and that is Dame Felicity Lott with Neemi Jarvi....

The OP asked more for the why, well, this I can't explain very accurately, but as a Tuba player, breath control is hugely important and that affects how one constructs phrases. For me, as a brass player, I like to tend to hearing the end of phrases being rounded off rather than chopped off (unless the music demands it obviously) and good and great lyrical sopranos do much more of the former.....a little in the Popp recording and massively so in the Lott recording, the orchestra/conductor makes way for the singer to end the phrase musically by holding the orchestra back, for want of a better expression.....the orchestra isn't being subservient to the singer, but rather subservient to both the music and the idea of the music. As I mentioned earlier, listen to the Lott version of ....freien Flügen schweben...in Beim Schlafgehen, and compare, and again neither Schwartkopf (which if memory serves, is brutal) nor the aforementioned Norman recording are musical enough for my tastes.

The orchestration from Strauss here (the whole work), even though comparatively sparse, I think is probably his finest work.
I find the piece intensely emotional given his time of life when he composed it so any approach that is tender and thoughtful is the right way to go for me......some of the recordings I've heard treat it like full tilt Wagner....no no no no........ :)
 

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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... :)
How strange that you should think so. The Schwarzkopf/Szell (if this is the recording you are talking about) has survived as a classic for over 50 years now and will no doubt survive for another 50. Those who don't like it tend to complain about too much, rather than too little, finesse. When it comes to a proper understanding and appreciation of the text, Schwarzkopf is not the singer to be found wanting.
 

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Just bought the Aga Mikolaj recording....but my it is soooo sloooow! all of it!
It's a bit grating at first and the last movement, which will stand a bit of speed, is probably the slowest of the lot!...which perversely allows you to enjoy her incredible mellifluous voice that bit longer - she is a fantastic, lyrical singer it has to be said. Probably a slow burner this version!
 

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Just bought the Aga Mikolaj recording....but my it is soooo sloooow! all of it!
It's a bit grating at first and the last movement, which will stand a bit of speed, is probably the slowest of the lot!...which perversely allows you to enjoy her incredible mellifluous voice that bit longer - she is a fantastic, lyrical singer it has to be said. Probably a slow burner this version!
Actually, the tempi for this recording are pretty close to the mean. Nothing like, for example, the ridiculous lengths to which Norman and Masur stretch the music.
 

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Not that anyone is suggesting anything other, but I’m not decrying any of these recordings mentioned, they all have musical and artistic merits, it’s just that I feel some are more appealing than others and I'm definitely enjoying what is an intellectual and enlightening debate on a work that is absolutely central to who I am! Thank you chaps! :)

…..I’ve just listened to the Schwartzkopf recording and I find it too pedestrian – She sounds like a cleaning Lady as she goes about her chores at some points, a little bit absent mindedly going through the motions…..I find some of her lack of emphasis on the start of phrases a bit odd for an artist of her quality too, but I understand that artistic styles come and go and this may have been the norm 50 odd years ago?


I realise for comparison that at some point I'll have to go and listen to the Norman recording....oh well... ;)

As an aside, even though I had said how almost painfully slow the Mikolaji recording was, I’ve just had a look to see how it compares against the other recordings I’ve been listening to timing wise and Im Abendrot in particular….my favourite recording with Felicity Lott/Jarvi comes in at 7’40’’, Lucia Popp/Tennstedt, 8’24’’, Schwartzkopf/Szell 8’26’’ and would you believe, the quickest version is the Mikolaji/Sollak version at 7’33’’!
 

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I realise for comparison that at some point I'll have to go and listen to the Norman recording....oh well... ;)
Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time. Her "Im Abendrot" with Masur runs nearly 10 minutes.

As an aside, even though I had said how almost painfully slow the Mikolaji recording was, I've just had a look to see how it compares against the other recordings I've been listening to timing wise and Im Abendrot in particular….my favourite recording with Felicity Lott/Jarvi comes in at 7'40'', Lucia Popp/Tennstedt, 8'24'', Schwartzkopf/Szell 8'26'' and would you believe, the quickest version is the Mikolaji/Sollak version at 7'33''!
Perception of "slowness" isn't all about tempo. Some conductors are able to maintain very slow tempi while still maintaining forward movement - Furtwangler, for example. There are others who can't seem to maintain momentum even at moderately slow tempi. The problem I have with Jessye Norman's recording with Masur is that it's both ridiculously slow AND Masur is unable to maintain musical forward motion.

BTW, the fastest "Im Abendrot" I''ve heard is Janowitz's with Haitink, which runs 5:35. That's *too* fast, and for me, it spoils an otherwise excellent performance. Della Casa with Bohm is nearly as fast at 6:00.
 

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A late composer friend of mine, who knew more about classical music & Strauss than anyone I've ever known, once told me that Andre Previn's timings with Arleen Auger looked about right for this music. (Though, at the time, he hadn't yet heard Auger's recording, he was simply looking at the timings.) He said that the Four Last Songs were often taken too quickly on recordings.

I find Auger at her best in the 4th song. She was ill at the time, and her performance probably wasn't as good as she could have done several years before--that is, except in the 4th song, which she sings with deep insight:

Auger/Previn/Vienna Philharmonic:

Frühling--3:28
September--4:38
Beim Schlafengehen--5: 28
Im Abendrot--8:22

I agree that Bohm's conducting was frustratingly poor in soprano Lisa Della Casa's Four Last Songs. 6:00 minutes is much too fast in the final song. I haven't heard Haitink's 5:35, but can't imagine what he was thinking.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf & Elisabeth Söderström are favorites of mine in the 3rd song. & I like Elly Ameling's live recording with Wolfgang Sawallisch, who was so obsessed with Strauss's music throughout his life that he performed every note (or virtually so) in the composer's opus, either by conducting, or on the piano, accompanying singers. I also like the sheer opulence of Jessye Norman's version with Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and don't mind how slowly Masur conducts Im Abendrot, which must be the slowest performance on record. As I like having different interpretations of music that I treasure.
 

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Perception of "slowness" isn't all about tempo. Some conductors are able to maintain very slow tempi while still maintaining forward movement - Furtwangler, for example. There are others who can't seem to maintain momentum even at moderately slow tempi. The problem I have with Jessye Norman's recording with Masur is that it's both ridiculously slow AND Masur is unable to maintain musical forward motion.
How very well put! Yes, I can feel what you say and have never considered that before so I will think more on that in future.

Just returning to the Norman/Masur version and, well, what a revelation! - having just purchased and listened to it Norman/Masur I can say that I am actually very moved by it. It is so alien to what I remember that I can only assume that there must be another Norman version that I have heard as there is no demonstration of that Tutonic Brunhilde that I remember, what with the curt, cut off bumpy phrasing and gasps for air that are definitely absent here.

Sure, Im Abendrot is very, very slow, but it's actually quite langorous and very, very musical, in fact, this movement shows the whole recording up for what it is - very intelligently directed, beautifully performed and well thought out. I understand what you are saying regarding the lack of forward motion, I think the first minute or so (ie up until the chord/phrase resolution) should be driven, but I can see what's happening there after. I suppose taking the movement as an allegory for Death. I understand why it's so, erm, tender....

In addition I am quite taken with the quality and timbre of Her voice, again employing my favourite word and in this case a certainly apt one, as mellifluous it certainly is. Quite why I have been so offended in the past by this recording I certainly cannot imagine, though at least, what a very pleasant surprise it is to have discovered it now: I first heard it about ten years ago so I can only imagine that my tastes have matured somewhat, though no matter how mature, I still can't find room for any of that Wagner nonsense ;)

I appreciate that no one attacked me here for may have sounded like anti-Norman comments and allowed my the space to waffle - I must have come across as ill-educated and not worth the bother: I will now consider myself none the wiser but at least, better informed…..

I can see I have some work to do here regarding all the other recordings mentioned here and on the other 'who's the Mummy?' thread - not an entirely unpleasant way to fill my time though :)
 

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Not that anyone is suggesting anything other, but I'm not decrying any of these recordings mentioned, they all have musical and artistic merits, it's just that I feel some are more appealing than others and I'm definitely enjoying what is an intellectual and enlightening debate on a work that is absolutely central to who I am! Thank you chaps! :)

…..I've just listened to the Schwartzkopf recording and I find it too pedestrian - She sounds like a cleaning Lady as she goes about her chores at some points, a little bit absent mindedly going through the motions…..I find some of her lack of emphasis on the start of phrases a bit odd for an artist of her quality too, but I understand that artistic styles come and go and this may have been the norm 50 odd years ago?

I realise for comparison that at some point I'll have to go and listen to the Norman recording....oh well... ;)

As an aside, even though I had said how almost painfully slow the Mikolaji recording was, I've just had a look to see how it compares against the other recordings I've been listening to timing wise and Im Abendrot in particular….my favourite recording with Felicity Lott/Jarvi comes in at 7'40'', Lucia Popp/Tennstedt, 8'24'', Schwartzkopf/Szell 8'26'' and would you believe, the quickest version is the Mikolaji/Sollak version at 7'33''!
We obviously have diametrically opposed views. Anything less like a cleaning lady than Schwarzkopf I can't imagine.

Though I find Masur for Norman a bit too slow, I don't like overly fast tempos either. Böhm for Della Casa has always seemed too fast for my tastes, as does Solti for Te Kanawa. I also find Karajan too fast in his live recording with Schwarzkopf. By the time he came to record it with Janowitz, he'd slowed down quite a bit, so presumably he thought so too.
 

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Thanks for the list, Bill. It's helpful. I didn't know there was a (presumably) live performance from Janowitz & Celibidache. It's probably a bootleg. I'm curious now if Celi outdoes Masur in the final song (maybe at around 13 minutes?).

As for the list's mistakes, the 15:17 Schwarzkopf timing for September isn't the only misprint. The list also indicates that Karita Mattila & Abbado bring in Im Abendrot at 4:25! I checked, and they bring it in at 8:25:


So, I suspect there may be other misprints ...

The list also doesn't include Elisabeth Söderström's live 1976 version with Antal Dorati. At the time the list was made the Dorati recording was probably sitting neglected in the BBC vaults. I mention the recording because it's a version that has grown on me over time.


Söderström's later 1982 digital version with conductor Richard Armstrong and the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera was mostly panned by the critics when it came out, and it's been harder to find than her BBC performance. Yet it's actually one of my favorite Four Last Songs, and as I wrote earlier, Söderström is especially committed in Beim Schlafengehen.


It should also be mentioned that these aren't actually Strauss' 4 last songs, since later in November of 1948 Strauss composed a fifth and final song, "Malven" or "Mallows" (a type of flower). Strauss' friend Ernest Roth didn't publish Malven with the other four songs as a unit--as the "Five Last Songs"--so he may not have known about "Malven": which was newly discovered among the belongings & estate of soprano Maria Jeritza, after she passed away in New Jersey in 1982 at the age of 94.

The unpublished score to "Malven" contained a dedication to her from Strauss--"To my beloved Maria, this last rose!" Interestingly, Miss Jeritza also owned an earlier version of the song "September", which was likewise dedicated to her by Strauss. That may suggest the five last songs were connected thematically in Strauss's mind, or at least composed for Miss Jeritza.

I wonder if the 5 songs would have worked together had Strauss orchestrated "Malven"?; though the addition of "Malven" would have made the order of the songs and Strauss's intentions more debatable. I've only ever heard "Malven" sung with piano accompaniment, so presumably Strauss didn't orchestrate it. Given that he lived for almost another year after composing "Malven"--passing away on September 8, 1949, it appears unlikely that he ever intended to orchestrate the song: which suggests that he didn't see "Malven" as part of a unit with the other four, even if the five songs were all composed for Miss Jeritza. Though, of course, it may have been only the publisher Roth, who in the first place saw the four songs as a unit, & not Strauss.


Here is a New York Times article detailing the history of "Malven", Miss Jeritza, Strauss, and the English composer Richard Blackford's role in the discovery of Strauss' last song:

https://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/15/arts/song-by-richard-strauss-discovered.html
 

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We obviously have diametrically opposed views. Anything less like a cleaning lady than Schwarzkopf I can't imagine.
:)

I have seen a few other different Schwarzkopf recordings so I'll look into those too, but on the recording we're talking about, she definitely doesn't sound too committed....what is it that particularly appeals with this version Greg?

I've just bought the Janowitz and Della Casa recordings, so I'll come back with some crack pot views later! ;)
 

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:)

I have seen a few other different Schwarzkopf recordings so I'll look into those too, but on the recording we're talking about, she definitely doesn't sound too committed....what is it that particularly appeals with this version Greg?
Just about everything. The autumnal glow of both the orchestra and the recording. Szell's tempi seem absolutely spot on to me. Though spacious, I don't find them in the least bit too slow (and, in any case, they are nowhere near so slow as Masur for Norman). Schwarzkopf's absorption and identification with the text is so complete, so all encompassing, her every utterance so inevitably right that, however much I enjoy other versions, I still hear Schwarzkopf in my mind's ear. Certain phrases in Swhwarzkopf's recording are now so firmly etched into my memory, that they spoil me for all others and Schwarzkopf and Szell seem to be completely at one in their vision. I'll cite a couple of examples, though there are countless more. Schwarzkopf's voicing of the words langsam tut er die müdgewordenen Augen zu in September, where Szell matches her tone perfectly in the orchestra. The other is in the final song, Im Abendrot. The way Schwarzkopf sings the words so tief im Abendrot has an almost cathartic release, not matched in any of her other recordings (nor by any other soprano), and superbly seconded by the rich carpet of sound Szell provides for her. Ist dies etwa der Tod, asks Schwarzkopf/Eichendorff, and as the orchestra creeps in with the quote from Tod und Verklärung, one can only assume that it is. For me it is one of the classic discs of all time, and would definitely be one for my desert island.

People hear things differently of course, but what strikes me as odd is your assertion of a lack of commitment. Schwarzkopf has her detractors. Which great artist doesn't? But they usually complain about a lack of spontaneity, of over-inflection of the text, of too much sophistication, and, though Schwarzkopf is one of my very favourite sopranos, I'd have to admit they have a point. I simply cannot understand anyone finding her uncommitted.
 

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Haven't listened to too many recordings but I am fond of one that's not often mentioned: Della Casa/Bohm, but not the studio recording--the live version from 1958 that came as a bonus to the live Keilberth Arabella.

Font Magenta Rectangle Publication Book cover


Della Casa and Bohm take it a little more leisurely and dreamily than the studio recording, in very good mono sound. Della Casa often strikes me as the answer to the question, "who do I listen to if I like Schwarzkopf but find her archness and fussiness a touch irritating?"
 

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Liszt, Bruckner, Chopin, Wallace, Bortkiewicz.
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Jessye and Kurt are the best (as you have already written)

My second choice: Edith Mathis! The Swiss soprano is THE hammer für die Lieder!

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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.Pnr Status TextNow VPN 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.
Yes, this recording was widely praised and considered almost sacrosanct
The media, but why they are accusing them of exaggerating
I do not see why
 
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