The First Four Last Songs
Just a quickie today, as I have a lot to do this afternoon. Last night I stayed in and listened to Prom 66, the penultimate Saturday evening concert of the 2010 season of BBC Promenade Concerts from the Royal Albert Hall in London. In fact it was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and then shown on BBC television a bit later, a strange arrangement but one that at least let me listen to some of the music twice.
I haven’t listened to all that many of the Saturday concerts this year – on a weekend the scheduling is often somewhat orthogonal to my tastes – but this one was one I’d been looking forward to for ages. It didn’t disappoint. The performance featured the Berlin Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in a very varied programme of music, including the Prelude to Act I of Parsifal by Richard Wagner and three marvellous orchestral suites by Arnold Schoenberg (Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16) and two of his students from the 2nd Vienna School Anton Webern (Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6) and Alban Berg (Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6). All of these were played quite beautifully by an Orchestra whose name is synonymous with the highest standards of musicianship.
Even better than these, however, was the centrepiece of the concert, Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, sung by the wonderful Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. I particularly wanted to hear this because the very first recording I bought of the Four Last Songs was by her (conducted by Claudio Abbado). It got mixed reviews when it came out about 10 years ago, but it’s still one of my favourites. Anyway, I thought her performance last night was as moving as any I’ve heard. Ten out of ten.
I’ve always known that the Four Last Songs were published after his death, so Strauss never heard them performed. What I didn’t know before the discussion on TV during the interval immediately after the performance was that the very first time they were performed was in 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall, by the London Philharmonia, so this was an occasion especially redolent for those who love this exquisite work. One can only imagine what it must have been like for the orchestra making this music live for the very first time. Apparently the first time any of them had seen the score was when they turned up for the rehearsal. I’m sure they knew as soon as they started playing that it was a masterpiece.
Anyway, I’ve posted a version of one of the Four Last Songs already – the last one, which happens to be my favourite. I thought I’d put up another one today and, given the historical connection, it seemed apt to pick a recording of the World Premiere of the work from 1950, by the London Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and featuring the legendary Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. You have to make some allowance for the sound quality given that it’s such an old live recording, but it’s fascinating to listen to it. For one thing it’s a very different tempo to that of most modern recordings. Here they are performing the second song which, appropriately enough given the time of year, is called September.