Only the first song, ‘Cäcilie’, and the Four Last Songs will be familiar to most listeners here. Hyperion goes beyond the strict bounds of voice-and-piano songs only in this eighth and final instalment of a magnificent and never predictable Strauss series. But when you have as classy a soprano as Rebecca Evans to hand, it’s well worth recording the Vier letzte Lieder in a piano version (not by Strauss) which sheds more light on these masterpieces. Evans weaves a special magic in the dying falls, with magnificent breath control at the end of ‘September’.
Gold, though, goes to Nicky Spence and Roger Vignoles, making a remarkable statement of intent in the rapturous ‘Cäcilie’, with a special care with text and phrase and an ardour verging on the heroic. The two next songs deal perfectly with the quirks of a hard-worked style; but Nos 1 and 3 of Op 43 from 1899 come out, contrary to previously-held opinion, as masterpieces. ‘An Sie’, Klopstock’s ode to Time, is bewitching, one of the great love songs in Spence’s handling, and ‘Die Ulme zu Hirsau’ seems to cry out for orchestration, with its rustling anticipation of the ‘beloved tree’ which Daphne becomes in the much later opera. Strauss’s range is further enhanced by the personal Rückert settings of Op 46, and the bad-tempered poet from Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan is concisely characterised. There’s both sensitivity and fearlessness in Spence’s upper register; three cheers to Hyperion.