February 6, 2015
Every soprano with sufficient chops, imagination, and breath, hopes to record Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. These orchestral songs represent the summation of Strauss’ genius as a composer for voice and orchestra and they are also a consummate test of a soprano’s ability.
Anna Netrebko’s performance was captured live for CD in the Philharmonie, Berlin in August 2014. Auditioned in hi-resolution via an HDTracks download, the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim sounds gorgeous in both the songs and their companion for the evening, Strauss’ youthful symphonic tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Strings are optimally smooth, with the overall warmth and sweetness of orchestra and acoustic a testament to both musicians and engineers. Barenboim’s rendition of Ein Heldenleben is so dynamic, colorful, and imaginatively phrased that few will feel compelled to compare it with other versions.
Aficionados of Strauss’ farewell to song, however, will have great difficulty listening to Anna Netrebko without hearing the great studio accounts by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (both of them) and Jessye Norman in their heads. True, Netrebko’s performance is live, and she gets better as the songs progress. Nonetheless, not only is some of her timing questionable in the first song, “Frühling” (Spring), but she half-screams her high notes. There is some lovely softening on the repeat of “deine selige Gegenwart!” (your blessed presence), but the overall presentation is far too tense, with tone more appropriate to a suffering Verdi heroine.
The overall presentation [of “Spring”] is far too tense, with tone more appropriate to a suffering Verdi heroine. Nor does Netrebko convey poet and composer’s ideas at the start of “September.” The phrase “Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt” (Leaf upon leaf drops golden) sounds anything but delicate. Barenboim swells beautifully to express the dying garden’s dream, but Netrebko convinces only when she softens. Nor can she sustain her final phrase without an unfortunate breath before the concluding words, “Augen zu.”
In the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to Sleep), Netrebko sounds far too forceful for someone greeting the starry night like a tired child. If only she had slowed down on the words “Schlummer senken,” rather than leaving it up to Barenboim and the supremely expressive violinist, Wolfram Brandl, to supply the poetry. In the last verse, where she briefly stops declaiming, she brings genuine radiance to “Zauberkreis.” Her ending is superb.
At the start of “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset), Barenboim surges beautifully, and his rubato is telling. Netrebko, on the other hand, takes far too many breaths in the first verse and fails to capture Strauss’ world-weariness. She softens for an extremely beautiful “O weiter, stiller Friede!” (O boundless, silent peace!), only to lamentably come on all guns in the next phrase, “So tief im Abendrot!” (so deep in the sunset!).
Finally, with acceptance of death, grandiosity cedes to artistry. Slowing down to soften on the final question, “ist dies etwa der Tod?” (can this be death?), Netrebko displays the sensitivity lacking in much of what came before. The Staatskapelle Berlin’s horns are superb, and the engineers conclude with an intelligent fade that omits applause. But in the end, this is not a recording for listeners who know and love these songs.