CD Review: Diana Damrau & Mariss Jansons’ ‘Vier letzte Lieder’

A Fond Farewell and Expressive Performances of Strauss Lieder

By Freddy Dominguez
Credit: Simon Fowler

Mariss Jansons, the celebrated Latvian conductor, ended his career on stage and on record conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.” Soprano Diana Damrau was at his side both times. Unfortunately, his final performance (at Carnegie Hall) in November, less than a month before his death, showed him weak and disoriented while Damrau struggled through a cold.

Luckily this recording made in January 2019 will remain a worthy memento of Jansons’ fruitful career.

A Sensitive Reading of a Colossal Work

Strauss’s settings of poetry by Hermann Hesse and Joseph Eichendorff are exquisite. In their traditional order as established by the music’s publisher, the set begins with an evocation of spring in upward vocal flights (“Frühling”) but quickly transitions to the more somber notes of a mistily auburn “September,” and finishes with two mesmerizing intimations of death (“Beim Schlafengehen” and  “Im Abendrot”).

Still, for all their glory, I’ve often found these songs difficult to enjoy. Their lushness can be overwhelming. Voice and orchestra can shimmer with glacial beauty but at the expense of flesh and blood and plain humanity.

This recording’s virtue is its simplicity. 

Jansons guides the orchestra through a direct, unaffected reading of the score. The music is all beauty and elegance, but not indulgent. It does not overdo the thickness of the orchestration or  its volume, creating atmosphere while providing flexibility and sonic space for Damrau and for Anton Barakhovsky’s warm violin solos.  

If you’re looking for big-voiced, steely renderings of these songs, classics by Kirsten Flagstad, Jessye Norman or Lise Davidsen’s recent recording will fit the bill. Damrau offers something more fragile, less tensile. 

Here we have a singer who does not spool silver threads, but brings a plush, velvety sound. In the most soaring passages her voice can sound a bit thin and there is the occasional undulation of pitch, but the overall effect is sensitive, intimate, beautiful, and real. Hers is an honest performance above all, with precise attention to language and the emotional underpinnings of the text. This is a woman singing to us, not a diva– and that’s a good thing.  

“Frühling” is often a stumbling block for singers, with its high tessitura, and orchestral fancies.  Damrau does not always sound at ease. In this case, unease– by intention or chance– provides a dramatic edge.  After all, this is not a chirpy springtime ditty, but a song of longing and desire that proves fleeting. It is not by chance the shortest  of the four pieces. 

Damrau’s voice is almost guttural at the start, setting the eerie tone that then evolves into a somewhat shrill exasperation and/or ecstasy.  

The remaining songs offer many tender gifts. In “September” we can bask in the unwinding, descending melismas as the acacia leaves fall and “Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt/ in den sterbenden Gartentraum.” 

We can be washed over by the tonal force and blossoming effects  in “Beim Schlafengehen” amid the freedom of resignation: “Und die Seele, unbewacht,/ Will in freien Flügen schweben.” 

Most importantly, Damrau conjures deep immersion in those most potent last words of “Im Abendrot”: “Wie sind wir wandermüde– ist dies etwa der Tod.” 

Smaller Pleasures 

The rest of the program consists of Strauss songs– 20 in all– accompanied by long-time collaborator Helmut Deutch on the piano. As in their previous album of Hugo Wolf lieder (with Jonas Kaufmann), Damrau and Deutch have a palpable rapport. His elegant playing provides a fine context for Damrau to show off her vocal grace and articulate the range of sensibilities in each miniature. 

She is playful in “Kornblumen (Cornflowers)” and  hypnotically serene in “Leise Lied (Gentle Song).” The highlight of the whole disc may very well be the “Drei Lieder der Ophelia (Three Songs of Ophelia),”  sung skillfully and disturbingly, like someone just on the other side of reason.

There are a series of other assorted lieder included in the CD’s concluding tracks.

But the final piece on the album, “Morgen,” performed with orchestra, seems like the most suitable of goodbyes to Jansons. A piece about the beautiful of what comes tomorrow, Barakhovsky’s opening violin solo is subdued and gentle, allowing Damrau’s soprano to shimmer delicately and freely; rubati abound, Damrau’s voice gentle and malleable throughout, the singing matching her stylistic approach to the “Four Last Songs.” It is a sublime, but melancholic ending to the entire musical package. 

Lovers of Strauss and Lieder will surely be thankful for this album, even if as far as the “Four Last Songs,”  Straussian die-hards will not be persuaded away from their existing heroines.   


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