Hyperion’s series of the complete songs of Richard Strauss has been long in the making. The first volume was reviewed on this site in May and when Paul Corfield Godfrey reviewed Vol. 6 in January 2013, he believed the cycle was finished. But here—surprise, surprise—comes a seventh volume, which is partly a mopping-up of 'left-overs' from the earlier volumes; the series was never presented chronologically. More importantly, it unfolds a number of songs from Strauss’s youth, songs that were never published during his lifetime but were made public in 1964 to mark his centenary celebrations. Strauss’s youth was in fact almost as precocious as Mozart’s and his very first song, a Christmas song (tr. 2) to a poem by Schubart (of Die Forelle fame) was written by a six-year-old composer-to-be who was just able to ‘paint in the notes’ as he expressed it. Since he ‘could not write small enough’ the words were inscribed into the manuscript by his mother. It is a simple melody and the accompaniment likewise but it turns out that the young maestro had some unexpected ideas about harmonies. As early as tis he was searching out his own ways.
Gradually we can follow his development and in Winterreise from 1871 he creates a dramatic atmosphere, not least in the piano part. Even more so Der müde Wanderer, written when he was nine, reveals a fine ear for drama, seemingly inspired by Weber’s Der Freischütz, which he had seen together with his parents. The opera composer in him had awakened, even though Guntram was still looming twenty years ahead.
There is a leap of four years to his next period of song writing and by 1877 he was already, as an early teenager, a fairly accomplished composer. The folk-song like Die Drossel to a text by Uhland stands out on account of its long prelude, depicting the singing of the thrush, while Lass ruhn die Toten (Chamisso) is an attempt at something deeper. The following year he aimed even higher in the long ballad Spielmann und Zither. The piano part is even more dramatic and expressive, vivid and pictorial but maybe he wasn’t quite ready for such a tragic story. In any case the lovely little Wiegenlied was more within his reach.
From 1879 comes Waldesgesang (text: von Geibel) which was ground-breaking insofar as it is the only surviving song of the six that were his first to be performed in public. Among the juvenilia is the song Alphorn with an obbligato part for French horn. Though the French horn is very far from the alphorn in sheer sound this is a valuable souvenir of a composition for his father who was an accomplished horn player. The song is even dedicated to him. Richard went on to write his first horn concerto for his father a few years later. The horn part on the present recording is beautifully played by the eminent Ed Lockwood.
Whatever the quality of these songs, they give a fascinating insight into the development of one of the greatest lieder composers. We should keep in mind that his first mature songs, the eight songs op. 10 (including, Zueignung, Nichts, Die Nacht and Allerseelen) were not written until 1885. He was then still a young man of just over twenty but knowledge of the pathway to this level of excellence is valuable in gaining an appreciation of what was to follow.
The remainder of the disc includes some songs from later dates that were left behind when Strauss died: works without an opus number. The beautiful Weihnachtslied from 1899 that opens the recital is one, four Goethe settings from various times (trs. 20–23) are interesting but hardly masterpieces and three songs from his op. 47, composed in 1900 (the other two in that group are Des Dichters Abendgang and Einkehr) are all well worth hearing. Auf ein Kind is attractive and Ben Johnson sings it marvellously well. Von den sieben Zechbrüdern is one of the longest songs by Strauss but it whirls along at a breath-taking tempo. Sankt Michael from 1942 is likewise worth a listen. Though generally speaking Hyperion has in the case of this CD been scraping the barrel, there are some grains of gold to keep company with insights into his development from talented infant to standing on the threshold of mastery.
They are sung by three excellent singers. Soprano Ruby Hughes and tenor Ben Johnson, both young and fresh-voiced—Johnson won the Audience Prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013 and is certainly one to watch. I had heard neither of them before. Baritone Günter Haumer, Viennese born, is a deeply experienced singer and his expressive delivery of mainly the more dramatic songs sometimes makes them seem better than they are. My only previous experience of him was as accordionist on a DVD some years ago in a Wagner parody based on Tannhäuser. Let nothing of this deter you from listening to this ultimate disc in Hyperion’s admirable Richard Strauss cycle. Technically it is up to the high expectations we have of each new issue from that company and the documentation is a model of its kind. The insightful liner notes are by Roger Vignoles.