Strauss Four Last Songs - Strauss' Epitaph

Strauss Four Last Songs - Strauss' Epitaph to himself.

One of the last wishes of the late Richard Strauss was that Kirsten Flagstad should be the soprano to introduce the four songs which he finished in 1948, the year before his death at 85.

”I would like to make it possible," he wrote to her, "that [the songs] should be at your disposal for a world premiere in the course of a concert with a first-class conductor and orchestra." In London last week Composer Strauss's wish was fulfilled to the letter.

With Albert Hall packed for the occasion, great-domed German Conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler stepped to the podium to lead London's Philharmonia Orchestra.

Plump and majestic, Soprano Flagstad took her place near his side, solemnly donned spectacles to read the music. What followed was a moving and deliberate farewell from a composer who, in his earlier years, had turned out the rich and masterful scores of Der Rosenkavalier, Death and Transfiguration, Don Quixote.

Sung as only Flagstad can sing, with her gorgeous, earth-mother quality of sound, Strauss Four Last Songs (Going to Sleep, September, Spring, At Sunset), were echoes of the old composer's most mellow and memorable days.

They spoke of a calm tiredness, deep autumnal peace, affection for his wife. At Sunset ended with a quiet and resigned interrogation: "Is this perhaps death?" As the last soft sounds died in the orchestra, one listening musician said, "What an epitaph to write for oneself!"

For the unveiling of the epitaph, Londoners could thank Sir Sri Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar Bahudar, the wealthy, 30-year old, Maharaja of Mysore. Though he could not be present, the music-loving maharaja had put up a guarantee for the performance, so that The Four Last Songs could be recorded for his fabulous (now 20,000 records) personal collection and shipped off to him.

Andrew Clements writes in The Guardian in 2001:

Strauss's Four Last Songs rank among the most haunting music ever written. Until recently, they were seen as constituting the composer's own requiem - a self-conscious farewell to existence, given loving expression by an idealised soprano voice and intended for performance after his death. But it is now accepted that Strauss, envisaging a performance in his lifetime, wrote the songs specifically for the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad.

Flagstad gave the world premiere, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting, in London in 1950. The performance survives in sound (Simax) as a record of what was obviously a momentous occasion. Flagstad is in opulent voice, mature, maternal and consoling.

The occasion was not commercially recorded, and all that remains to document the concert is an inadequate and scratchy sound recording - but still - for its historical value it is important

One reviewer, Mr. Culshaw, commented that hearing Flagstad sing these songs was to realize that by comparison all other interpreters sounded like "miniaturists".

Be that as it may, the recording we have can not do justice to what was actually heard in the concert hall.

It does document a concert with two giants of the music scene of that time presenting the world premiere of songs that remain to this day timeless classics.

One reviewer enthusiastically outlines the advantages of a voice like Flagstad's in these songs

"I have 10 recordings of the wonderful four last songs that Richard Strauss and I must say that I rate this record at the very top along with Renee Fleming's 1994 recording.

Jessye Norman's wonderfully exciting recording is also at the top.

I come to this recording again and again when I want to hear the songs mainly because of Flagstad's beautiful singing. I also have her Berlin performance from 1952 where so omitted "Beim Schlafengehen" and she sang a cut "Im Abendroth" (where, strangely, the title was among the sections that was cut).

Her wonderfully beautiful tone is very evident throughout all the songs. She is able to soar above the orchestra as few lyric sopranos can when performing it live.

When hearing Flagstad in this recording you can hear every emotion in every note.

I am a Flagstad nut so my review may be biased but I cannot help myself but to think this way when hearing the greatest voice of the 20th century.

Strauss Four Last Songs

The honor of the first commercial recording of the Four Last Songs fell to
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf - highly recommended.