Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Four Last Songs - Röschmann / Nézet-Séguin
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben Op. 40, Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)
Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
The first recording by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra for BIS centred on Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, a work which stands squarely on the threshold between Classicism and Romanticism. Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation brilliantly demonstrated this ambivalence, as the reviewer in CD Review on BBC Radio 3 remarked: ‘A Fantastic Symphony that relishes in the transparency and the delicacy of Berlioz's scoring while remaining true to its vivid imagination and dramatic punch’.
On the follow-up to that exciting release is another work that straddles a musical divide, namely Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Composed in 1948, these late blooms of an unabashed Romanticism stood in the midst of a musical landscape which featured the twelve-tone serialism of the Darmstadt School, John Cage’s prepared piano and the first examples of musique concrète.
In accordance with Strauss’s wish, it was the dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad who first performed the songs, but they also became closely associated with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. On the present recording, it is Dorothea Röschmann, one of today’s foremost Mozart sopranos who lends her voice to what is often regarded as an expression of the composer’s acceptance of death’s inevitability, at the age of eighty-four.
We meet Strauss in a completely different mood in the disc’s opening work – the large-scale symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) composed fifty years before the songs. By casting himself in the role of the Hero, Strauss managed to provoke generations of music-lovers for years to come. A study of aggressive egotism, the work has been called, as well as the most conceited piece of music ever written. But it is also widely regarded as one of the most brilliant, and virtuosic, orchestral scores in the history of music, displaying the possibilities of a large symphony orchestra to the fullest.
Review by Adrian Quanjer - July 1, 2011
This latest issue of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra underlines once again what a gifted conductor he is and how he is able to shape an orchestra and tackle major repertoire with apparent ease showing nonetheless deep insight in these demanding works. We are grateful for BIS having put it on record. Nothing in the playing reflects the dark clouds hanging over the future of this orchestra due to imminent deep cuts in government funding. On the contrary, it rather looks as though they, inspired by the youthful energy of their new Chef Québecois (since 2008 Valery Giergiev’s successor at the helm of the Rotterdam Philharmonic), want to give the best of themselves and hence to the audience. To paraphrase an old saying: the more difficult the going gets the better the results are. The program on this disk is a well-chosen combination of Strauss’ life as a ‘hero’ and the premonition of his death in the final of his four last songs ‘Im Abendrot’.
There still remains some doubt as to whom the hero in ‘Ein Heldenleben’ is. In a letter to his father Strauss leaves it open: ‘I am supposed to be the hero myself, which is, however, only partly correct’. It would seem that Strauss did project himself in the role of the hero realizing, however, the amount of wishful thinking involved. All too human! (Think of politicians writing their ‘memoires’). This being ‘programme’ music, i.e. telling a story with notes rather than words, it is up to the interpreters to get the message across to the audience. Well, Nézet-Séguin reveals himself as an excellent story teller. We can almost ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the moods of the Hero in all its detail, giving preference to colouring, clear textures and articulate phrasing over heaviness and drama. The musicians excel in all these departments. A special mention deserves the leader of the RPhO (the R standing for Rotterdam and not Royal), Igor Gruppmann, for his violin solos.
The ‘Vier Letzte Lieder’ are, in its orchestrated form, a benchmark for singers. All the big names have recorded them with more and sometimes less success. In spite of what the word 'Lied' suggests, the combination and orchestration of these songs add up to a 'poème symphonique' for soprano and orchestra. It is not only the quality of the singer which counts, but also to what extent the conductor (and the recording engineer!) is able to create the right balance between singer and orchestra. Many of us, I take it, are familiar with Jessey Norman’s account with Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchester (and keep listening to it in spite of Super Audio) where the balance is so good that the singer becomes part of the orchestral 'fabric'. Another, not to be neglected element, is the fact that the score allows for a choice between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano. (Kirsten Flagstad, Strauss’s personal choice for the first performance, was a soprano becoming a mezzo later on). This can make a considerable change in mood from ‘operatic’ (soprano) to more ‘intimate’ (mezzo-soprano). Some prefer the first (Karita Mattila), others the latter choice (Waltraud Meier). All a matter of personal taste. There is even a (piano) version for baritone (Konrad Jarnot) available. Dorothea Röschmann is a soprano whose voice is particularly suitable for Mozart’s operas. In Straus’s Four Last Songs she is nevertheless most convincing and she manages to encompass both moods: operatic and intimate. Listen to her ‘Beim schlafengehen’: Vividly emotional, with a perfectly controlled voice and the additional advantage of singing (and hence the understanding and the correct interpretation of the text) in her native language. She cannot replace Jessey Norman as the timbre of their voices is incomparable. But Dorothea Röschmann’s warmth and perfection, as well as her distinctly restraint personality in each of the four Lieder, does set a new standard amongst the best interpretations available. The balance between voice and orchestra is perfect, the recording excellent and the booklet full of interesting information. Highly recommended.
After reading Geohominid’s comments about the sound quality, I listened once more to the recordings. As far as the need to turn up the volume is concerned, I noted that as well, but I do not think that it is something to worry too much about. It also happens the other way around. Moreover, when I compared the songs with those of Karita Mattila and the Berlin Philharmonic, there was hardly any need to adjust the volume setting. The remarks about the sound stage are, however, a different matter, and after further listening I do agree that it is narrower than in many other recordings. As I do not have Ein Heldenleben with Fabio Luisi and the Staatskapelle Dresden, I made the comparison with another Strauss’ orchestral work with the same forces (Eine Alpensymphonie) on the same label. And, indeed, the difference is quite remarkable. I have, therefore, adjusted my score in that respect.
But do we not stumble here on another phenomenon: The Sony sound stage stretches from far left of the left front speaker, to far right of the right speaker, reminding me of a technique from the first days of stereo recording, where engineers placed one instrument exclusively to the left and another exclusively to the right, to create a ‘real’ stereo effect. So, my question is: what is realistic. Do we want a 120 or a 180 degree sound stage? The latter is what a conductor hears. One can then clearly locate the violins to the left (provided it is not a left first, right second set up). Or do we want a more realistically reduced one, like when one sits in row 20 in a hall. ‘Seen’ from where you sit, the direct sound stage narrows to a mere 30 degrees. It then becomes less easy to point left or right for locating individual groups of instruments. Especially the strings. [I will not address the Tacet techniques where you sit either in the middle or where you hear the instruments playing musical chairs, moving between the four corners of the listening room]. Could it be that we are dealing here with a deliberate approach by the BIS engineers? As for chamber music, it is clear that ‘overdoing’ the sound stage makes a string quartet sound like an orchestra, taking away much of its intended intimacy.
I was not aware of any acoustic ‘problems’ in the Doelen, this hall generally being considered as quite good, but I have to admit that I did not read the referenced report. As far as the actual renovation is concerned, this had more to do with refurbishing, renewal of the lighting, replacing the asbestos in the ceiling ‘while keeping the excellent acoustics’ and adding a suspended stage roof to enable the musicians to better hear one another. Reverberation, though, is a problem in an empty hall. But it did not ‘fatigue’ my listening (on my humble equipment).
Finally, given the choice between Anja Harteros (which I have as well) and Dorothea Röschmann, I prefer by far the latter. But taste is a very personal matter.
Copyright © 2011 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net
Review by John Miller - July 2, 2011
It has been a great pleasure recently to hear a succession of BIS issues which have superbly natural concert-hall sound, such that the music can be fully appreciated without worrying about engineering problems. I'm saying this at the top of this review, since to my ears there are significant issues with the recording balance on this disc, which made it difficult to appraise the performances.
Playing 'Heldenleben' at my normal listening level in multichannel mode, the orchestra was conveyed as surprisingly distant, a narrow, centred sound image somewhere back in the vast, reverberant acoustic of the recently-restored de Doelen Hall in Rotterdam. I had to advance the volume control by 12 full extra steps, the most I've ever had to use, in order to get a convincing orchestral presence and some excitement and detail in the sound. Still the image was narrow and central, and I could not locate the position of any of the string departments on the stage with certainty. Basses and drums sounded woolly. In Track 2, the woodwind and brass mimicking the Hero's Critics suddenly leaped forward as an in-line group, now spreading right across between the speakers, but with the strings still recessed. Loud passages were blurred and strident as the reverberation had a hangover of about 3 seconds, and upper violins acquired a fatiguing glare. Cymbal clashes and loud side-drum were also overcooked on the treble side.
Interestingly, an acoustic engineering paper from 2008 (1) detailed the hall's pre-renovation acoustic problems. Part of this involved the authors taking subjective comments from musicians of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, such as: low loudness and intelligibility at the front positions on the stage, especially for the strings, but high loudness from the rear position of brass and percussion to the other instrument groups. In addition, the timbre in de Doelen of the loud and high-frequency instruments (brass and violins) was judged as rather shrill, the low-frequency instruments being judged as rather dead/woolly. It would seem that although the acoustic treatments in the renovations are said to have been very successful (perhaps so in a populated auditorium), conditions on the stage for recording in 2010 may still be difficult.
I'm not a fan of the wall-of sound mode of recording for classical music, and this 'Heldenleben' has quite a lot of this. The sonics are quite reasonable at low to moderate dynamic levels, but loud music becomes two-dimensional, and, at the climaxes of the Battle with the Critics (track 4,) almost terrifying, when the supposedly rear-stage brass and percussion groups are going full blast between one's speakers, producing highly-fatiguing noise when re-energised by the hall's high-treble reverberations. What a relief it is to turn to Luisi's recording (Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen - Luisi) (also in a very reverberant but well-tamed acoustic), with its deep and wide orchestral perspectives and natural balances. Here the battery of warring percussion and brass are lodged safely at the back of the orchestra as intended, but still more than making their mark in the melee.
From what I can pick out of Nézet-Séguin's performance of one of Strauss' most ebullient tone-poems, his frequent playing of this piece with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, including an American tour, has generated approving concert reviews. This is a live-wire Hero, not the grandiose ego of Karajan's proponent with the BPO's most saturated tone, nor the determined but self-controlled Hero of Kempe's unforgettable version. There is energy, spontaneity and even some risk-taking with Nézet-Séguin's very vivid and contrasty orchestral picture. Repose is provided by the solo violin's portrayal of the Hero's wife (surely the volatile and demanding Pauline de Ahna); amusing, seductive and wheedling all at once, but enveloped by the steadfast warmth of the Hero's love. The recollection of the Hero's Works is ripely presented, exuding a noble calm which is most appealing.
Since Strauss' Four Last Songs would have to be one of my Desert Island Discs, I have collected many of the available recordings, from Flagstadt and della Casa, Schwarzkopf/Szell up to the recent delectable Soile Isokowski reading. It has generally been accepted that the songs are for lyric sopranos, although Jessye Norman, for example, was a dramatic soprano with a darker voice than usual. Dorothea Röschmann is also famed as a dramatic soprano, and judging by the first few bars of "Frühling", her lower range is almost as deep and dark as Norman's used to be.
To my ears, Röschmann's rather projected vocal line is not a good vehicle for word painting in these late masterpieces of Strauss. For this we turn to the incomparable Schwarzkopf. Röschmann's delivery, although obviously sincere, has a very noticeable vibrato, with expression mainly achieved by swells in the vocal line, as well as some swoops. Above the stave, her tessitura has an oddly hard edge - which may have been aided (or even provided) by the concert hall, even though she is recorded rather too closely for my liking. I could find little magic in this rendition, which requires a perfect sound recording for its full effect. In short, after several playings at various volumes, I remained dry eyed for once. My taste would be for a simpler, natural voice floating and soaring within the gorgeous orchestral tapestries.
Nézet-Séguin, however, produced beautifully rendered support from each of the four distinct orchestral ensembles demanded by Strauss' intricate and emotive scoring (as far as the recording would allow me to hear). Here, voice and orchestra should be equals in carrying the poetic narration.
Those listening in stereo will find somewhat less obtrusive contributions from the vast-sounding de Doelen Hall. If you are tolerant of forwardly-projected winds, brass and percussion with recessive and unfocussed strings, you may think very well of the performances on this disc. Personally, I would prefer to return to Luisi, both for his 'Heldenleben' and for the fresh, pure and lightly voiced' Four Last Songs' of Anja Harteros. She expresses a vulnerable pathos in flowing lines, without any trace of mere vocal display.
The renovation of De Doelen Concert Hall, M.Vercammen, M. Lautenbach, 2008. Proc. Institute of Acoustics Vol. 30, pt. 3.
Copyright © 2011 John Miller and HRAudio.net
Review by Graham Williams - July 20, 2011
The principal reason for buying this disc, and possibly the only one I would argue, is for Dorothea Röschmann's supremely beautiful performance of the Strauss 'Vier Letzte Lieder'. No doubt many contemplating acquiring this BIS disc will already own one or more of the countless alternative recordings of these songs and will have chosen their own favourite recorded performances. In my case these would certainly include those of Gundula Janowitz/Karajan and Lucia Popp/Tennstedt as well as many others. Janowitz and Popp both had very distinctive voices notable for their purity, tonal beauty and accuracy. These are qualities that Röschmann also possesses. In each of these songs Röschmann produces an even creamy tone and an unforced legato as well as vividly communicating the meaning of the texts to the listener thanks to her precise diction.
The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin deliver a cushion of golden sound above which Röschmann's voice floats ethereally. Tempi are moderate, allowing appreciation of the cultivated playing from this fine orchestra.
Even without considering the sound quality of this SACD Yannick Nézet-Séguin's performance of Ein Heldenleben is disappointing. The Hero strides out confidently in the opening section and the recording on my system presents the orchestra in a reasonably wide orchestral image between the speakers, albeit in a excessively reverberant acoustic that appears closer to that of an empty aircraft hanger or swimming bath than a modern concert hall. The critics are not especially well characterised, sounding garrulous rather than spiteful, but it is when we reach the 'Des Helden Gefãhrtin' section that doubts about Nézet-Séguin's interpretation present themselves. It starts well enough with Igor Gruppman's fine depiction of the unpredictable moods of the formidable Pauline Strauss, but it gradually becomes more and more lethargic as the 'love music' progresses and almost comes to a standstill with the oboe solo at 9'15”. The off-stage trumpets announcing the call to battle, that emanate thrillingly from the surround speakers, thankfully dispel the torpor that Nézet-Séguin has generated. The battle music is exciting, but sonically a confused mess with only the piercing trumpets and the bass drum making a real impression. In Nézet-Séguin hands 'Des Helden Friedenswerke' flow rapturously but, as earlier, the work's final section appears too self-indulgent at the conductor's enervating tempo, in spite of the very fine playing from his Rotterdam orchestra.
As I have indicated, the hall acoustic compounds this recording's problems and finding a suitable volume setting for Heldenleben is very difficult indeed. Recommendable alternative versions on SACD include Luisi ( if you don't mind a different ending) Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen - Luisi and
Reiner Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben - Reiner whose vintage recording and white-hot performance shows how this work should sound.
(The 'Vier Letzte Lieder' deserve an extra half star for both performance and sonics)
Copyright © 2011 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net