Richard Strauss Orchestral Songs Review

Album. Released March 1998.  

BBC Review

'When was the last time you honestly listened with open ears to a new recording of...

John Armstrong 2002

When was the last time you honestly listened with open ears to a new recording of Strauss's loving farewell to the soprano voice and gave it a chance against your tried-and-tested favourites?

Everyone seems to have a favourite recording of the Four Last Songs, maybe two; I'll cheerfully admit to Lucia Popp and Felicity Lott, even the comparatively extreme Jessye Norman for the radiant beauty of her huge voice, and awesome breath control.

'What about Schwarzkopf?' you may be asking. Well, yes, I do have copies of her recordings, but they're never the ones I reach for first, despite the fact I know I'm supposed to. Too breathy, and lacking the burnished beauty of the best of the rest (that will have made me a few enemies for sure!).

But...here's a new recording everyone who loves these songs should hear, whether they end up adding it to their list or not. Soile Isokoski made me listen afresh for the first time in years...and she also made me realise that we've been drifting further and further from what Strauss asked for, accepting slower and more self-indulgent speeds, and hyper-inflated emotional expressionism. Maybe in the late 20th century we learned to love these songs too much, forgetting their essential simplicity. Here's a reminder perhaps of what the man really meant.

Don't be alarmed if Isokoski and Janowski feel brisk in some of the orchestral songs we've become used to hearing almost in slow motion. Here Strauss is allowed to speak for himself straight from the pages of the score, and Isokoski's silvery soprano soars effortlessly into the stratosphere, as beautiful a sound as anyone could wish for, yet without the layers of interpretative varnish or rich vibrato that actually distance us from the real emotional content of the songs. The cradle songs (Wiegenlied and Meinem Kinde) are a perfect illustration of Isokoski's approach: simple, direct, and deeply moving. By the time she gets to Morgen, you're emotional putty in her hands...and the rapt stillness she achieves is magical.

Often the great vocal performances have been let down by the orchestra and/or conductor (see Jessye Norman for details!), sometimes an intrusively close recording: not here. Even the all-important violin solos are impeccable, playing and singing perfectly matched.

If you like Strauss, you must hear this. And if you know one of those music-lovers who think no-one's done anything worth hearing in the Four Last Songs since Schwartzkopf and Szell in '66, make them listen to Isokoski. It could be the best thing that happens to them all year.

Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3

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