Renée Fleming, one of the great living Straussian sopranos, already has a recording of the Four Last Songs, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach, for RCA. Last fall, Decca released this live recording of an all-Strauss program Fleming gave with the Munich Philharmonic in April 2008, which opens with the Vier letzte Lieder. Fleming's first attempt at these celebrated twilight compositions was already an accomplished performance, although I have been listening to Jessye Norman for years as my reference recording. Fleming's second attempt is definitely an upgrade (you can listen online), not only in terms of the refinement (if not necessarily heft) of her voice and the quality of her German, but because the hand at the helm belongs to Christian Thielemann, perhaps the best Strauss conductor at the moment, and the orchestra is the Munich Philharmonic. The orchestral sound is a lush, color-rich fabric, with only some squeaky high strings detracting from the opening of September.
R. Strauss, Four Last Songs, R. Fleming, Munich Philharmonic, C. Thielemann
(released on September 16, 2008)
Fleming maintains that Strauss is her favorite composer to sing -- have a listen to the extensive NPR feature by Fleming about this recording. As she usually does in Strauss and similar music, Fleming keeps the scooping and other mannerisms to a minimum. Most strikingly, she achieves a fluid transparency in some of the songs' radiant moments, and Thielemann's forces respond with warm, gentle sounds, especially in the languorous Beim Schlafengehen. In the rest of the selections -- excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos and Die ägyptische Helena, as well as a set of four songs recorded by Fleming for the first time here -- the vocal instrument is ideal for Strauss, a broad swath of sound with a burnished low range, power and the ability to control it, and dynamic range. For a couple extra dollars at the reduced prices now listed at Amazon, the devoted Fleming fan should probably buy the Deluxe Edition, which includes the Strauss disc plus a bonus CD containing another hour's worth of performances of La Fleming's signature roles at the Met (not necessarily recorded at the Met) -- Otello, Eugene Onegin, Rusalka, Thaïs, and Capriccio.