Last August I wrote about a nine-CD box from TwoPianists Records entitled Richard Strauss: Complete Works for Voice and Piano: 1870–1948, timed for release on the day before the composer’s 150th birthday. For those who look forward to vocal recitalists that like to include Strauss on their programs, one could not have asked for a better recorded reference source, since the scope ran from a Christmas carol that Strauss composed at the age of six to “Malven” (mallow plants), composed on November 23, 1948 and not discovered until September of 1984. What was missing from this collection, however, were the songs composed with orchestral accompaniment, the best known of which were published under the title Four Last Songs.
Last month Naxos of America took over the distribution of a collection of the orchestral songs, originally released in Europe in 2006, that complements the TwoPianists release. This is a much more modest set, only three CDs, produced by the Swiss label NIGHTINGALE CLASSICS. The ensemble is the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice conducted by Friedrich Haider. Half as many vocalists contributed to this project as had performed for the TwoPianists release:
- Sopranos: Adrianne Pieczonka, Edita Gruberova, Judith Howarth
- Mezzo: Petja Petrova
- Tenor: Peter Straka
- Baritone: Bo Skovhus
- Bass: Kurt Moll
Packaging includes a 250-page booklet in both German and English. Selections are ordered by opus number, and the booklet provides an alphabetical index for both titles and first lines. The result is one of those always-desired productive combinations of expert musicianship and production values that honor the priorities of serious listeners.
Nevertheless, a bit of stretching was involved to fill three CDs. While most of the orchestrations are Strauss’ own, the first disc has three selections orchestrated by Robert Heger and one each by Leopold Wenninger and Felix Mottl. Curiously, the very first track is Heger’s orchestration of “Zueignung” (dedication), which is followed immediately by Strauss’ version. It is also important to note that only fifteen songs are not orchestrations of works originally composed for piano accompaniments. These are the four songs of Opus 33, the two of Opus 44, the two of Opus 51, the three of Opus 71, and (of course) the Four Last Songs. Opus 51 is particularly interesting, since these are the only two songs Strauss ever composed for the bass range; and it is a real treat listening to Moll singing Strauss’ music for something other than the role of Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. (With those two tracks, no night is too long!) Another virtue of the booklet is that, where orchestrations are involved, it provides dates for both the original composition and the orchestration, as well as the instrumentation for all of the settings.
Most interesting is that, whether Strauss is orchestrating or composing directly for instrumental ensemble, the accompaniments are refreshingly free of the full-throated bombast one encounters in both the orchestral and operatic works. There is very much a sense that Strauss took a personal approach to every poem he set. Thus, what emerges from most of the tracks in this collection are performances in which introspection trumps exhibitionism. This approach benefits particularly from the relationship that Haider has established with each of the vocalists, which always homes in on just the right balance of resources. What results is a particularly intimate account of Strauss that can be followed throughout the course of his life, rather than assumed to have surfaced only in his old age. Having this collection available “domestically,” rather than through import, should be welcomed by anyone interested in the full scope of Strauss’ creativity.