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Four Lost Songs

Lorin (Varencove) Maazel has never been accused of being the most exciting orchestra leader (not in the last half century, at any rate), but this quintessential child protégé (conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the tender age of nine, the NBC Symphony Orchestra at 11, and every other major U.S. orchestra before hitting puberty) is among the most competent conductors alive. Nothing that happens in an orchestra goes by him, and his control over the bands he conducts is probably second only to Boulez’s. If I didn’t cry a tear when he left the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2002 (replaced by Mariss Jansons), it was probably because the BRSO was not so much in need of being drilled to play well but rather inspired to play as if possessed and in more challenging repertory. There are, however, orchestras that can only benefit from his exactitude and attention to detail. The National Symphony Orchestra, for all its good qualities, is still such a body. This Thursday night they had their chance to showcase the amalgamation of their collaboration in an all-Richard Strauss program – and didn’t.

Metamorphosen, the “Study for 23 Solo Strings” and the first Strauss on the program can, ideally, be an ethereal, otherworldly experience that completely envelops the listener and transports us into the Straussian harmonic world somewhere far, far away. If the NSO’s twenty-three string players under Maazel didn’t, it was perhaps the labored, unidiomatic way in which they slowly advanced through the notes without leaving much behind in ways of conjured mystery or awe. The conductor Maazel (what a precise stick, though! he’s a joy to watch) prepped the players well enough, but I would have expected the violinist Maazel to have infused his players with a greater sense of emotion – even if Metamorphosen should have been considered the least important work of the night by the performers.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Maazel and the NSO's Seductive 'Don Juan' (Washington Post, January 20)
The Four Last Songs of Strauss contain what must surely be one of the most beautiful phrases in all of music. Specifically in Beim Schlafengehen – these days generally sung at the third position. It is the proof of Strauss’s genius that he touches upon this phrase once, then one more time – less than two minutes in all – and lets go, never to use it again. Listen to what starts at about two minutes into the song, after the second stanza, with the violin solo, has a pre-climax on the word “Seele” (“Und die Seele unbewacht…”) and then encompasses the first two lines of “will in freien Flügen schweben / um im Zauberkreis der Nacht / tief und tausendfach zu leben.” Any lesser composer would have milked an entire career out of it. (No disrespect to Mr. Elgar, but such an example might be how the sublime Nimrod-phrase pops up in just about every other work of the Englishman.) Music that is this spine-tingling and gorgeous will impress under most circumstances. Unfortunately the soprano on duty seriously challenged that assumption. Held against such supreme – albeit all very different from each other – accounts of the Vier Letzte Lieder as Jessye Norman, Lisa Della Casa, Dame Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Gundula Janowitz, and Renée Fleming, her contribution was simply foul.

Inferior breath control ruined musical lines despite Maazel’s already brisk pace, she sang into the ground in front of her (or alternatively the note stand), and despite her towering presence on stage (almost as tall as Maazel on the podium) she was drowned out by the orchestra most of the time. The soprano is supposed to soar here – not make the effort audible. Together with a somewhat inadequate contribution from the orchestra (only Nurith Bar-Josef’s solo in Beim Schlafengehen managed to please), this was a dud as disappointing as I’ve not before experienced from an NSO performance.

It wasn’t until after the actual performance that I noticed the leaflet in the program that pointed out that this had not been Katarina Karnéus singing (she had to cancel due to illness), but Nancy Gustafson who graciously filled in for her. That may go some way in explaining the mishap – but then again, it doesn’t, really. Ms. Gustafson’s bio is easily as impressive as Ms. Karnéus’s – and judging from her roles at the finest opera houses (including Daphne under Thielemann at the Deutsche Oper Berlin), the Four Last Songs should be well within her reach. I can’t imagine what went wrong, and I’d rather not spend any more time thinking about the performance, either.

Last week, modest Mozart was eradicated from the memory by wondrous Wagner. The performances of Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel didn’t quite achieve what would in any case have amounted to a Herculean task, but they provided for a very amelioratory experience. Don Juan was muscular, throwing his weight into the music. Based on a lesser known retelling of the Don Juan story (poor Juan merely has so many girlfriends because they all turn out to be unfit for a future of domestic bliss chez Tenorio), Strauss packed it with good-hearted elements, lyrical moments, and an abrupt, unceremonious end. With Maazel and the NSO telling the story we heard an accentuated element of brashness in a bold Don Juan. It served to highlight the contrast between op. 20 and the op. 28 that followed – the lighter, sprightlier Till Eulenspiegel. The opening of Till already has a light gait. Just a little mud on the shoes in this performance but not enough to drag it down. The players seemed to enjoy themselves, and the collected hundred-plus crew made a merry noise, indeed. The many solo passages were largely mastered with aplomb.

Repeat performances take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 1:30 PM.

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Four Last Songs,
E.Schwarzkopf / G.Szell /
Berlin RSO

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Four Last Songs,
L.Della Casa / K.Böhm /
Vienna Philharmonic

available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Four Last Songs,
J.Norman / K.Masur /
Leipzig Gewandhaus O.

The recordings of the Vier Letzten Lieder that must be heard are the first three I mentioned above. Norman (with Masur and the Gewandhaus, either with more Strauss or with the Wesendonk-Lieder on Philips) is not the most sensitive to the text, and she does not offer the most nuanced reading. But by God, in Beim Schlafengehen her big, creamy voice is the most gorgeous thing ever to have come from a human throat, and Masur is there with her, all the way. She seems to take all four songs in one breath, no matter how slow Masur gets. “The Classic” is Schwartzkopf's reading. For reasons of sound quality and orchestral accompaniment her second, 1965, recording with George Szell (EMI GrOC) is usually chosen over the one where Otto Ackermann accompanies her in 1953 (EMI Historical Recordings). It’s a smidgen overrated but must be heard, all the same. Lisa Della Casa, Strauss’s favorite Arabella, has vocal beauty in scores and takes the songs in the original order under the guiding baton of Karl Böhm (Decca Legendary Performances). A brook to Norman’s stream, a deer to Norman’s elk – the connoisseur’s choice. Janowitz under Karajan (DG Originals) is the most different. A voice of flattened silver, perhaps with tin, she flitters along with more vibrato than most and better breath control than all but Norman.