Richard Strauss, “Four Last Songs.”
Richard Strauss once described himself as “a second-rate composer,” then said, “but I am the best second-rate composer.” For Renee Fleming, this is not an adequate description. She has said publicly that if she could sing the works of only one composer, that would be Richard Strauss.
Were I a soprano I would agree with her. These songs, “Fruhling” (Spring); “September”; “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to Sleep); “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset), were composed in the last months of Strauss’s life, from May to September, 1948, and, except for the song, “Malven,” are his last works.
He was 84, possibly aware of his impending death. And while the songs are based on texts of the poems of Herman Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, all of which are generally associated with the end of days, the songs are extraordinarily uplifting.
They are profoundly moving as sung by some of the greatest sopranos of the second half of the 20th century. Most recently, in 2008, Renee Fleming has recorded them, but many fine recordings are available. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf has a very intimate and personal approach in her late recording in 1965 with George Szell, while Fleming’s voice is plummy and infused with the richness of her operatic voice.
Ricarda Merbeth’s recording is very straightforward, while the richness of Anne Schwanewilms’s recordings since 2004 led her to record all the Strauss songs, in fine interpretations. All these sopranos, and many of the others who recorded these songs, have found something intensely personal in the music, and it is not just an awareness of death. If anything, it is a deeper awareness of life itself. The depth of feeling that the songs give rise to in the experienced listener intensifies our love of life in part simply because of the amazing sensuality of the music in the soprano voice.
The Four Last Songs are said to be special favorites of literary characters, such as Inspector Morse, and real actors, such as Meryl Streep. For me they are virtually an addiction. Sometimes I will load six versions on my CD player and listen to them all, amazed at each version.