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Posted by Martin Walker on April 16, 2010, 6:31 pm
I'm going to register a vote of dissent here: I see that Brian Wilson in his keen and judicious review of the Schwarzkopf/Szell CD reissue mentions Ian Lace's enthusiastic encomium of this recording. I too used to worship this recording, and I still enjoy most of it, BUT - I have come to feel that the interpretation of Vier letzte Lieder is more a warmed up dish of precooked ingredients than an actual performance. Here are all the Schwarzkopf mannerisms of stress, colouring and enunciation, but the whole does not hang together. She moues, yes even moos, and pouts and discolours for expressive effect, but it's all so calculated as if presented on a silver dish; Szell's RSO Berlin sound almost clinical and rather bodiless - the yearning counterpoint of the majestic introduction to "Im Abendrot", in particular the aching subtext of the Nebenstimme, seem to be rather coolly glossed over. There is no timeless sweep, to coin an oxymoron, no real connection. It's not the timing of the song as such (8'18) - just compare the live recording Flagstad made in 1952 with Sebastian conducting the Berlin State Opera orchestra (Hunt nla): this takes 8'22 and moves with magisterial inevitability and that sense of timelessness I alluded to above, Sebastian getting the full poignancy out of that counterpoint I mentioned, so that the Nebenstimme becomes a Hauptstimme without obliterating the real one. Though Flagstad makes a few slips the whole is suffused by her regal phrasing and depth of tone. All is built up from the bottom to the top, in both orchestra and voice; there is a sense of deathless nobility. But of course, the live '52 sound is lacking in warmth and colour, though it is easy to imagine these qualities when listening (especially after a few drinks or something of the sort). I do not know the Popp recording and shall remedy that omission; the later version with MTT (Sony) is marred by a regrettable blowsiness of voice that spoils her good intentions and undoubted understanding (I bought the CD for Gruberova's Brentano Lieder). My favourite version at present is the superb performance by Teresa Stich-Randall with Ansermet & the Suisse Romande (Cascavelle, whose voice can both soar above the orchestra and merge with it, unlike the not totally dissimilar voice of Gundula Janowitz with Karajan and the BPO, which remains oddly apart and rather monochrome, as if she were singing Bach or something. Janowitz/Karajan take 6'45 over Im Abendrot, Stich-Randall/Ansermet 7'18, but the real difference can be heard in the way the glorious BPO of the introduction to the former is suddenly almost withdrawn (engineering?)in order to highlight the soprano voice - and then return with renewed power and Brucknerian weightiness in the long-drawn-out epilogue, while under Ansermet the less glorious sounding Suisse Romande orchestra plays with more bite and is a true partner to the voice, not an accompaniment. Have I then disqualified Schwarzkopf from the 4 Last Songs stakes? No, even though I agree that the Ackermann recording lacks a really impressive orchestral texture to complement Schwarzkopf's lither and more flexible voice in 1953. And though there is a later recording with Szell and the Concertgebouw made at the Holland festival (Audiophile Classics) a couple of years before the EMI stereo recording, displaying Dame Elisabeth's voice in more powerful and velvety estate accompanied by a superior orchestra, the same reservations tend to apply to her performance and there is a lack of clarity in the orchestral sound. My favourite Schwarzkopf performance on CD is that preserved by EMI in their 5 CD Schwarzkopf Edition (1990), with Karajan conducting the Philharmonia in June 1956. Here the great singer is at her best and the orchestra sings out full-throatedly, especially the horns - Dennis Brain is no wilting violet here,especially when he ripely intones the transfiguration motif (hardly heard in other performances) as the singer intones "Ist dies - etwa" before solemnly concluding "der Tod?". The sound is much more present than in the older Ackermann recording, despite being also in mono. There is a mild warning to be issued here: either the singer or the conductor determined on a different order of the songs which puts "September" last, with its touching "Augen zu" before the luscious sadness of the horn's Abgesang in the epilogue. Don't let that put you off, though: it's a classic live recording, like the Ansermet/Stich-Randall (coupled with the Fauré Requiem with Souzay...).
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