The inception of an important new series on Hyperion: the complete songs of Richard Strauss on a projected eight or nine CDs.
Although Strauss wrote over two hundred songs, barely a dozen are well known to the public at large and not more than perhaps thirty feature with any regularity in concert programmes. In part this obscurity could be ascribed to the mediocre nature of much of the poetry the composer chose to set; Goethe, Rückert and Heine do indeed put in an appearance, but for the most part Strauss seemed content to set lesser-known poems from the byways of literature. Perhaps this allowed him to focus more completely on the music itself, unburdened of the potential for invidious comparison. The orchestral nature of many of Strauss’s accompaniments, furthermore, can serve to intimidate performers, yet we know that the composer’s own performances (many given with his soprano wife) allowed for significant divergence from the so-called Urtext as circumstances demanded.
Such considerations are swept aside in this new recording, with Roger Vignoles providing the perfect accompaniment to Christine Brewer (whose performances in Ariadne auf Naxos have, not surprisingly, won her considerable international acclaim) in a recital which combines such favourites as Wiegenlied, Zueignung and Allerseelen with a host of lesser-known songs in the first of what promises to be an enthralling series.
Full texts and translations are provided, along with insightful commentaries on each song by Roger Vignoles.
Other recommended albums
Although Richard Strauss wrote over two hundred songs, barely a dozen are well known to the public at large and not more than perhaps thirty feature with any regularity in concert programmes. Many more deserve to be much better known, but their neglect also reflects an undeniable unevenness, especially during the middle years. As Strauss himself freely admitted, when the Muse smiled the song would almost write itself, but at other times it took hard work:
Musical ideas have prepared themselves in me – God knows why – and when, as it were, the barrel is full, a song appears in the twinkling of an eye as soon as I come across a poem more or less corresponding to the subject of the imaginary song … If I find no poem corresponding to the subject which exists in my sub-conscious mind, then the creative urge has to be re-channelled to the setting of some other poem which I think lends itself to music. It goes slowly, though … I resort to artifice.
Yet Strauss’s artifice is often as good as many a lesser man’s inspiration. Meanwhile, his insistence that musical inspiration was the primary impulse is significant, and in marked contrast to the tendency of composers of ‘the modern Lied’ – by this he especially meant Hugo Wolf, for whom the entire nuance of the poetic text was of prime importance, and who immersed himself only in writers of the highest quality: Eichendorff, Mörike, Goethe. In the case of Strauss, none of the writers he favoured – Gilm, von Schack, Dehmel – can be called a major figure. True, there is a small sprinkling of texts by Goethe, Rückert and Heine, but none is representative of their genius. (That said, the world would be poorer without the two magnificent Heine songs recorded on this disc, especially Die heiligen drei Könige.)
In any case, in responding to the musical impulse Strauss was playing to his own strengths as a composer – his innate gift for vocal melody, his sense of harmonic colouring and the generous, orchestral texture of his piano parts. Interestingly, when accompanying his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, he was often known to vary the more difficult passages, as though he already considered the material as an orchestral score – how often have we pianists longed to have that freedom ourselves!
Strauss is often said to have had a lifelong love affair with the soprano voice, and certainly no other composer has ever written for it with such glamour. Even though some of his songs were originally written with tenor in mind – he was of course much less generous in his operatic roles, which are generally unkind to tenors – it is not surprising that the best (or at least the most singable) have been readily taken up by female singers, recognizing Strauss’s unique ability to flatter their voices.
The more remarkable fact is that Strauss composed so many of his greatest songs so early in his career. No fewer than three – Zueignung, Die Nacht and Allerseelen – appeared in his very first published set, Opus 10, and most of his other well known songs – including Morgen, Ständchen, Befreit and Wiegenlied – appeared long before 1905, the year in which Salome was completed and his career as an opera composer began. Ironically, it may be the very success of those early hits and the few other favourites that has put so many other fine songs in the shade.
In selecting the songs for this series, it has been decided to follow musical, as much as musicological, considerations. Strauss’s groupings by opus number have not necessarily been adhered to, since although some sets are unified by the choice of poet, in other cases it is not always obvious that Strauss intended a particular set of songs to be performed as a group, or indeed that they were put together for any other reason than convenience of publication. Not infrequently, songs stand side by side that are quite clearly conceived for totally different voice types, while elsewhere the variation in style and content disrupts any great sense of musical cohesion.
The endeavour therefore is in each case to entice the listener with the sequence of songs while playing to the strengths of the singer concerned. In the case of Christine Brewer, who opens the series, these strengths are evident and matched by the choice of repertoire, ranging chronologically from the familiar Zueignung to the rarefied (and rarely, if ever, performed) Gesänge des Orients Op 77. These latter songs, not to mention dramatic numbers such as Ich liebe dich and In der Campagna, would be well-nigh impossible without a voice of the heft and versatility of Christine Brewer, who thereby provides us with a panoramic view of the heights and depths of Strauss’s song-composing style.
Roger Vignoles © 2005
Other albums in this series
Strauss: The Complete Songs, Vol. 6 – Elizabeth Watts
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67844