More Vier letzte Lieder
I am rather in love with Strauss' Vier letzte Lieder. I thought that I would do a brief roundup of the four recordings I return to the most.
1. Jessye Norman/Masur/Gewandhaus
Probably the overall winner for so-rich-that-it's-fattening category. Norman's voice is so expansive and powerful that it overwhelms the sonic landscape. Masur's tempi are slow, but they work with Norman's voice. Is this what Strauss intended? Probably not, but it is the most beautiful realization of the score - right or wrong.
2. Gundula Janowitz/Von Karajan/Berliner Phil.
I agree with the Amazon reviewer who called this the most haunting recording of the Lieder. Janowitz' silvery soprano is almost otherworldly, and it fits in well with Von Karajan's similarly shiny sound. I don't generally care for Von Karajan, but his Strauss is perfectly and opulently conceived. There is a sort of alien perfection to this record, and it is probably the perfect performance of Strauss' intentions. For a long time, this was my favorite - and I still am very fond of it; however, there is only so much of this sort of crystalline perfection that one can reasonably handle.
3. Lisa della Casa/Böhm/Wiener Phil.
This is a weird performance, because Böhm (or the engineers) decided to perform the Lieder in Strauss' compositional order. That makes it a little jarring for me, especially with the entrance to "Frühling" serving as an introduction to Strauss' soundscape. Böhm also runs a bit quicker in the score than most, and the liner notes attempt to breathlessly explain that the slow tempi are a result of conductors' desire to artificially impose majesty and power on a score that has clear tempi marked. Böhm's tempi work, I suppose, and Della Casa carries it. Her voice is as beautiful as any I would ever want to hear. There is a restrained elegance to it that implies so much more than it reveals. This is, now - pace Von Karajan et al. - my favorite.
4. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Szell/RSO Berlin
I don't care for Schwarzkopf. Her tinny, overly shiny tone doesn't do it for me. Her marriage to Legge guaranteed that she would be the EMI soprano-of-choice, explaining her otherwise incongruous appearance on the 1951 Bayreuth 9th with Furtwängler. There were better sopranos around, as referenced by the hard-to-find 1954 recording at Bayreuth. Szell is Szell, and if you don't like his steely, Germanic attitude, then you're S.O.L. - as they say here. He does well here, and the RSO Berlin band plays their hearts out for him, but that's like asking Fritz Reiner to make the Immolation Scene sweat blood. It just ain't gonna happen. This is a popular recording, but it is not my favorite - by a long shot.