Archive for Four Last Songs


Posted in Music with tags , , on March 11, 2014 by telescoper

I thought I’d post this recording of Frühling (“Spring”) which I heard  on the radio at the weekend; it seems appropriate enough for the season and for the lovely weather we’re currently enjoying. It features the gorgeous voice of Gundula Janowitz,  wonderfully bright and clear like finest crystal. I have so far posted two of the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss; this makes it three.

The First Four Last Songs

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on September 5, 2010 by telescoper

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.


The End of All Songs

Posted in Music with tags , , on August 1, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve been searching around on Youtube for quite a while trying to decide which is my favourite version of my favourite song. This is Im Abendrot, a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, as it was set to music by Richard Strauss and published as the last of his Four Last Songs. Strauss wrote the music for this in 1948, just a year before he died.

The poem had a special meaning for Strauss and I think that comes across in the achingly beautiful music he composed for it. The verse is

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft,
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
daß wir uns nicht verirren
In dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

Although it is basically about death, I find this piece immensely uplifting and joyful.  The setting of the last verse in particular reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t reach. The voice floats freely as if suspended in mid-air over the first line (O weiter, stiller Friede!) while the orchestra gently swells beneath it, heightening the suspense. The voice then soars up and away like a majestic bird over the second line of text (So tief im Abendrot) while the orchestra gathers again. The exquisite countermelody rises up to meet the vocal line and they fly together for a while before the words come to and end and it all eventually subsides into a quiet but wonderful sense of fulfilment and peace.

Music just doesn’t get much better than this.

This is the best version I could find on Youtube, by the relatively unknown Gundula Janowitz recorded in 1973 with the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m not saying it’s the best version that’s ever been done – this piece has been recorded by virtually every soprano worthy of the name and everyone will have their favourite- but this is up among the very best.