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.


11 Responses to “The First Four Last Songs”

  1. Steve Warren Says:

    I confess I would have switched off for Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. I did once voluntarily go to see Berg’s opera Wozzeck, and enjoyed it, but only because the strange sounds made me giggle.

    I remember a conversation long ago when you were looking for suitable music to accompany some TV cosmology series you had produced, with various distinguished talking heads. You were proposing Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht, just to be dramatic I suppose, but I kicked myself later for not suggesting Carnival of the Animals. I don’t know who was in it, but there were some obvious possibilities: Peter Coles as the swan, Ken Freeman and Bruce Peterson the kangaroos, Geoff Burbidge the elephant, anyone ancient as the fossils … but who would you have chosen as the tortoises?

  2. telescoper Says:

    Strange sounds? Perhaps, but I think Wozzeck is one of the greatest of all operas. Each to his own. I hope your giggling did annoy the rest of the audience.

    My first choice for the cosmology series would have been Misterioso by Thelonious Monk, actually. In the end that music thing came to nothing because we had no budget to pay for the rights to anything interesting. We settled for some bland stock music. I notice the same piece is often used for Horizon nowadays. Perhaps they spend all their money on graphics so can’t afford proper music either.

  3. John Peacock Says:


    I listened to the Rattle prom. You’re right about the difference in speed compared to earlier recordings (and not just the Flagstad premiere). You
    may disagree, but my opinion is that this helps demonstrate that Rattle took them all far too slowly. I’ve often thought that one mark of a great musician is that they can sustain a slow tempo without you thinking (God, that’s *so* slow). Klaus Tennstedt with Lucia Popp manages this, but Rattle didn’t – to me it just sounded like pure self indulgence, rather than in the service of the music. More flowing tempi, but with rubato in the right places, can move you much more than this “twice as slow must be twice as meaningful” fallacy.

    But the Berliners coped tremendously. I was lucky enough to help perform these piece just a week ago (and yes, my voice has broken…) and the’re really hard for the orchestra: you have to play so quietly to avoid drowning the soprano, and yet a lot of the writing is stratospheric. They made it sound easy, even at that speed, blast them…

    • telescoper Says:

      I did feel the tempo for the first three was on the slow side, but it didn’t really bother me that much. The last one Im Abendrot was just right, I thought. The music is so gorgeous throughout that there must be a strong temptation to wallow in it but I’ve heard much more ponderous versions.

      Strangely, I found it easier to pick out features of the orchestral playing on the TV version than on the radio. There was also one beautiful camera angle in which we saw the vocalist standing, with her arms outstretched, apparently surrounded by the orchestra. It emphasized that this work is much more than a singer with an orchestra playing behind her.

    • telescoper Says:

      The guardian review also felt the Four Last Songs (and the preceding Wagner) too sluggish:

      but the rating was still five stars out of five.

  4. I was at the Prom on Saturday. I was very excited about hearing Karita Mattila but I’m afraid I was very underwhelmed. She was virtually inaudible for large parts of all four songs. She looked awkward in the first song: always a challenge for larger voiced sopranos, and didn’t appear to settle for the other songs.
    At first I thought it was just me, but people around me were also complaining that they couldn’t hear her voice OR the words.
    We weren’t sitting in the Gods but in the seats above the arena.
    The Webern and the Wagner were the highlights of the evening.

    • telescoper Says:

      I wasn’t there so can only go by what I heard on TV and Radio, and I thought she sang beautifully. I do think she sounded a bit nervous at the start, but I assumed that was deliberate: the opening of the first poem is all about anticipation, so a little nervousness works very well.

      For what it’s worth I really enjoyed all the second half, but felt the Wagner was pedestrian by comparison.

  5. It sounded very much like Dennis Brain playing the horn solo at the end of september. Please put me right if I am wrong. What a wonderful player. The soprano was beautiful. Finding this has made my day.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Brain was a 17-sigma outlier. Given the colossal improvement in playing standards since the 1950s, you’d expect that we’d now describe him as “a leading player in his day” – thus implicitly not in the same league as a whole raft of modern professionals. But he still stands out.

  7. I just read a glowing review of the Proms performance in the Observer:

    I notice that Fiona Maddocks agrees with me that Im Abendrot is the best of the Four Last Songs..

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