Now for something completely different: I spent Friday evening simply enjoying myself with no responsibility for anyone else (my daughter was out and my wife was writing a paper for one of her graduate courses, so I was left to my own devices). I sat in my easy chair next to the amplifier and popped CDs in and out while I alternately listened intently and read with the music in the background. The music I chose was Richard Strauss' FOUR LAST SONGS, and I am confirmed in my opinion that it is simply the most fantastic music for voice and orchestra in the repertoire.
The SONGS were composed toward the end of Maestro Strauss' life, and together they constitute a meditation on the end of life. (Three of the songs are on texts by Hermann Hesse; the fourth Hesse song was never completed because of Strass' death. The fourth, on a text of an author whose name has escaped me, was added by the publisher to complete the cycle. It turns out to be a good decision -- both for profits and for musicality.) It is not maudlin, although it is romantic (what do you expect with Hesse?). I wouldn't mind hearing BEIM SCHLAFENGEHEN (on going to sleep) as I lay on my death bed. In fact, these four songs really help place life and death in proper proportion. It's quite sermonic!
I started collecting reocrdings of the SONGS twenty years ago, so now I have about ten or eleven different recordings of the piece (most on CD, some on vinyl and CD, but one or two still on vinyl only -- which I much perfer for the depth and warmth of sound), and I simply played through some of them, comparing the various interpretations, tempi, fluidity of line, and tonal qualities of the singers. And I played through the piece as sung by one diva, and then replaced it with another. And so it went for more than a couple of hours. (I was also reading, so I wasn't always listening to the music exclusively. Sometimes the music was in the same room as I, with my being aware of its presence, but not held captive -- as though a friend were in the room with me, perhaps reading as I read, but with no conversation.
At this point I think my favorite recording is by the American soprano-superstar Renee Fleming. (In what I say, I am aware that she benefits from recording technology that earlier vocalists did not, so that the general presentation is more satisfying. But that's not what I'm really focussing on when I listen. As I said, if I were a true audiophile, I would listen only to vinyl recordings -- and I'd never hear the new singers.) She has the most fantastic voice -- full, rich, almost mezzo in its quality (except that it stays rich and full and even more alluring as she hits the highest notes -- not something that is true of all the interpreters). I have had the great honor to meet the Diva and speak with her just after she finished performing the songs with the Minnesota Orchestra. She is charming as well as talented! And her interpretation (along with Chrisoph Eschenbach and the Houston orchestra -- marvelous instrument, there) is, I think, flawless -- it's not "arty," or contrived or melodramatic. (I would like to instruct the violin soloist in the BEIM SCHLAFENGEHEN, but I have yet to establish my musical conservatory credentials.)
Up to hearing her recording and her live performance, I had considered Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's recording the best (she actually has two). Madame Schwarzkopf is a singer's singer -- immensely committed to making music as good as it can be. She is bright, enormously talented, very attractive (and lamentably retired), and working with her husband, producer Walter Legge, has produced some of the most precise and accurate recordings you can imagine. (I think one critic once called her/their recording of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO "pristine.") Schwarzkopf is often accused of being too perfect -- mannered (I think a little), self-conscious (perhaps in some lieder, certainly NOT in her opera recordings), "precious." But, man, can the woman sing. (She relates, in her memoir, a scene in a restaurant when Maria Callas came up to her at the dining table and insisted she teach her a technique for holding high notes. It's a howler-- the very staid Madame Schwarzkopf and the devil-diva Callas going at high Cs while a roomful of startled diners probably didn't know whether to cry or shout "brava".)
It turns out that Madame Fleming also considers Schwarzkopf's SONGS the most interesting and precise. (I learned this because I asked her, point blank.) After listening to all extant recordings, as a part of preparing to sing the piece herself, Ms. Fleming concluded that hers was the best. (I, of course, felt confirmed in my taste -- if not in my knowledge -- by that information.)
But my experience is that there is no "bad" recording of the SONGS. It is a fabulous piece of music, also fabulously difficult (the range alone is deadly), and most singers have had the good sense to avoid it.
Everyone should have two or three different recordings of the SONGS (I'd like to remain the only person I know who has almost all the extant recordings).
By the way, supposedly Madame Fleming was the model for the opera singer in the novel BEL CANTO (a book I can also recommend). I have not sensed the rawness in Ms. Fleming that is apparent in the singer in the novel, but the novel's singer is known for her performances of RUSULKA (Dvorak's opera), and Renee Fleming is about the only one who sings it these days. (In fact, the aria to the moon from that opera was Ms. Fleming's encore the night she sang SONGS with the Minnesota.) I think it's so neat when two of my great loves, literature and opera, come together.