Rather than coupling the Four Last Songs with the usual selection of favourite orchestral songs, this new release from Naxos places them alongside Strauss's own orchestrations of his Brentano-Lieder Op. 68 and two orchestral excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos. The two sets of Lieder make a fascinating coupling: composed in 1918-19, the Brentano settings show Strauss's relatively blasé reaction to the First World War compared to his more considered reaction to the Second World War, a conflict that brought personal humiliation and ruin as well as the destruction, as he saw it, of the German culture which he'd naively seen as untouchable. Placing these two works together makes a lot of sense. The reasons, though, for tacking the Overture and the 'Dance Scene' from Ariadne auf Naxos on at the end, are less clear.
Although the unusual coupling automatically makes this an interesting disc – especially at Naxos' budget price – the Four Last Songs is a work for which you don't want to have to make compromises. There are already so many wonderful recordings by some of the recording era's greatest sopranos, and several of them (including Schwarzkopf, Janowitz and Norman) available at budget or mid price, that soprano Ricarda Merbeth was always going to have difficulty finding a place for her interpretation in the catalogue.
She's a fine singer with a CV that boasts a string of high-profile engagements that show her pedigree as a Straussian, including being cast as Daphne for a new production at the Vienna State Opera a couple of years ago. However, although she has all the notes, her voice has a rather broad vibrato which just doesn't suit the often almost instrumental demands Strauss makes on the voice in these last songs. And although the Weimar Staatskapelle under Michael Halász provide able support, their contribution is more efficient than inspired. These elements come together to produce a version of the songs that does nothing to mask the beauty of the music itself but just never soars like the best performances. The big crescendo, for example, after the violin solo in 'Beim Schlafengehen' stays earthbound and elsewhere the long phrases just don't float as they should, the melismas in the vocal line sounding effortful. Halász fails to draw much sense of serenity out of his orchestra in the long introduction to 'Im Abendrot' and although the horn solo that concludes 'September' is played beautifully, the beginning of it is slightly rushed.
With the Brentano-Lieder, Merbeth is entering a far less crowded field and although a couple of them are firmly established among the favourites of Strauss's Lieder output ('Ich wollt' ein Sträußlein binden' and 'Als mir dein Lied erklang' in particular), recordings of the set in their orchestral guise are extremely thin on the ground. Strauss orchestrated the last song, 'Lied der Frauen', in 1933 and arranged the rest in the Summer of 1940; the fact that this was the same time he was working on Capriccio is immediately apparent from 'Als mir dein Lied erklang' which sounds like an extension of the Countess's final scene from that opera, which, it crossed my mind, would have made a more natural coupling than the Ariadne excerpts.
Generally the same drawbacks affect the Brentano-Lieder in that Merbeth simply lacks the luxurious vocal allure that, for example, Soile Isokoski brings to the three she couples with her version of the Four Last Songs on Ondine. The reading of the lengthy 'Lied der Frauen' fails to persuade us that this is anything but one of the composer's weaker songs and elsewhere the performers fail to create the atmosphere of dreamy romance that's so important, and the melismas in 'Ich wollt' ein Sträußlein binden' again sound laboured. Matters aren't helped, either, by the fact that Merbeth is placed rather forward in the recording.
The two orchestral extracts from Ariadne auf Naxos are treated to well-played performances but provide a puzzling and, ultimately, unconvincing close to the disc. However, for the rare Brentano-Lieder this is still a useful addition to the catalogue
By Hugo Shirley