Diana Damrau sings Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder on Erato

Jansons was – and had been for many years in my view – the finest living
Strauss conductor and Diana Damrau might consider herself very fortunate
that she was the soprano he had chosen to program these songs with
throughout 2019. A performance of them in New York, in early November, and
less than a month before his death, would find both singer and conductor
unwell – but that is not the case on this recording made in Munich. And nor
was it so when I


their Strauss concert for Opera Today, given in London in January last
year, which was an unforgettable example of this conductor’s way with

At the time, I thought Damrau’s performance of the Vier letzte Lieder struggled to achieve a unanimity between the
songs; there was even an occasional lack of depth and involvement. But, it
was clearly evident she could touch greatness, even if sometimes one felt
her singing leaned heavily the other way too. This recording gives a
somewhat different impression – as recordings often do – but what is also
unusual, and this is often not the case, is that Damrau is challenged by an
orchestra and conductor at the limit of their expressive range. You have to
go back decades to hear something similar – to Celibidache, in a live
performance with Jessye Norman, Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra with
Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Karajan, again, with Janowitz.

Damrau has not always chosen her repertoire wisely – neither Violetta nor
Lucia quite suited her, and a disc of bel canto arias displayed such
shortcomings in her vocal command – not least an unsteady (and rather wide)
vibrato and an inability to sustain phrasing – that one wondered if the
voice, rather like Studer’s or Battle’s were to become, was beyond
redemption. You detect very slight hints of those vocal problems in the
orchestral songs here, a tendency to ‘gulp’, the breathing a touch erratic,
and that is, I think, because when you hear Damrau live, against an
orchestra, the voice can sound under pressure. Despite the opulence, and
those silky lines, it’s not the largest instrument; the Lieder, however,
are quite another matter. She really does do intimacy supremely well.

Here we have a Strauss soprano who is perhaps unrivalled amongst singers
today in getting inside these songs, though she has largely eschewed the
more obvious ones for Lieder which penetrate deep within the psyche, and
which embrace expressionism and mortality. Many of the songs she has chosen
are complex miniatures which veer between simplicity and emotional depth,
often within a few bars; their brevity can make them seem monochrome when
in fact they are rendered with the intense vibrancy of Impressionism.
Damrau can, and does, make a complete Shakespearian tragedy – of madness
and psychosis – out of one Strauss set where Bellini arias with identical
themes eluded her. It isn’t just the intimacy she brings to Strauss Lieder,
but also a complete range to her voice which she often struggles with in
the Vier letzte Lieder.

Damrau’s voice sits in the middle range (as do most) of the singers who
have tackled these songs, and, for many of them, the weakest of the four is
most often the first, ‘Fr¸hling’. Jansons doesn’t make life too difficult
for Damrau here – far from it. The very opening bars are fluid enough and
that free-flowing tempo is largely sustained throughout. Damrau doesn’t
need the huge flexibility of breath control that Gundula Janowitz does for
Karajan – and nor is she really expected to exceed the comfort zone of her
own range to meet her conductor’s tempi. Damrau is rather adept at
shadowing the orchestra, especially the woodwind, and though she can hit
her top notes there is the hint of a quiver to them and intrusive vibrato
(between 2’30 and 2’36 shows how under pressure Damrau can sometimes
sound). But what is somewhat lacking in this performance of ‘Fr¸hling’ is
sufficient tonal colour; you’ll really struggle to hear any attempt at
giving any weight or length to the notes, though this is in one sense
because Jansons clearly sees this song as having more momentum than many
conductors tend to (he is even quicker than Szell who is certainly no

The first thing one notices about ‘September’ isn’t Damrau but the
beautifully gilded playing of the Bavarian strings. What the recording
captures so magnificently here is a division between sombre autumnal
plangency and the mysterious allegorical shiver of leaves falling from the
Acacia tree. It’s wonderfully caught through divided violins, Jansons
giving an almost Debussy-like canvas to the scoring that even eluded
Karajan. When I heard Damrau last year I thought she rather missed the mark
in this song but that is less the case in this performance. There is still
a tendency to snatch phrases (c. 0’24) but she generally rescues the music
with greater suspension and a lingering drift into seasonal

Damrau’s strength in Strauss is an intrinsic capacity in his darker music
to delve rather deeply beyond the text and give us something special. This
is the case in lieder like the ‘Ophelia’ songs (also included on this disc)
– and it’s also evident in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. The voice is neither as
sumptuous nor as creamy as some – unlike the orchestra here which is simply
ravishing – but she gives such meaning to Hesse’s words that death becomes
enigmatic. In some performances the voice seems to ascend and soar above
the orchestra as if it is in perpetual flight; Damrau takes a different
approach, floating around the solo violin and horn as they spiral towards
heaven. It works (when it really shouldn’t) simply because Damrau knows
what the emotional context of the words are. If in the preceding songs she
sometimes struggles with the phrasing, here their meandering length is
glowing, even impeccably done.

‘Im Abendrot’ is similarly affecting, although this is a song which is as
much about the orchestra as it is the soprano. Those trills on doubled
flutes are the most lyrical of larks imaginable, their fluttering wings
taking flight with breath-taking elegance. This is a dissolving sunset that
slowly melts as an old couple reflect on their past love. Damrau doesn’t
see complexity here, just the simplicity of intimacy, her voice coalescing
with the orchestra as the music fades into a stillness. It is, I think,
impossible to listen to these final lines, “Wie sind wir wanderm¸de/Ist
dies etwa der Tod”, in this particular performance, without thinking of
Mariss Jansons. If one can sometimes feel equivocal about Diana Damrau’s
singing, even though there are very notable parts here which are very fine
indeed, this is very much a supreme reminder of how great a conductor
Jansons was of Richard Strauss.

Where Damrau really does excel on this disc is in the lieder, where she is
partnered by the pianist Helmut Deutsch. This partnership is so symbiotic
in Strauss – if it isn’t always in some other composers they perform
together – that the results are often profoundly moving. The quartet of
songs which make up ‘M‰dchenblumen’ probably couldn’t be more different
from the Vier letzte Lieder. These are lieder about nature, the
complete obverse of the death-haunted songs which open the disc. Their
metaphor is about a transformation into the living world – a garden of
flowers, burbling streams, trees flexing their branches in a gentle breeze.
They require a rather different approach from a soprano, though a no less
deep and involving one. They aren’t without their challenges. ‘Kornblumen’
sinks or swims on the soprano’s agility to enter before the pianist,
something which Damrau easily does here. But, there are distinct changes in
dynamics and motion as well. ‘Mahnblumen’ is paced with sparkling energy
and some labyrinthine twists in the phrasing; ‘Wasserosse’ should sound
like a painting in music, the rippling of music conveyed in both the voice
and the piano. Damrau and Deutsch manage both.

Probably the finest songs here are the ‘Ophelia’ settings, and not just
because they derive their inspiration from Shakespeare. They suit Damrau’s
uninhibited way with Straussian psychology well. These are lieder which
demand some depth, a certain fleshing out of character: Ophelia is on the
brink of madness and psychosis, and these are songs which prophesise death
and embrace mortality. Damrau can make a distinction in these songs, and
earlier Strauss ones, between a single element – in this case water – by
giving a terrifying power to it in the ‘Ophelia’ setting; she is destined
to drown. The music itself is taxing with leaps in the voice evoking
Ophelia’s madness, or low notes reflecting the crisis of doom which will
befall her. It’s a very convincing portrait, in a performance which is
quite beautifully sung.

Songs from both the 8 Lieder and the 5 Lieder are sung
out of numerical order, which I find slightly disorienting. ‘Die
Verschwiegenen’ is suitably terse, ‘Die Nacht’ (recalling at its opening on
the piano the oboe solo in Don Juan) is beautifully poised, whilst
‘Die Zeitlose’ returns us to the gardens of nature, but this time to
flowers with a toxic scent to them which Damrau so carefully describes in
such a short space of time. The disc closes with ‘Morgen’, but in Strauss’s
orchestrated version with Jansons and his Bavarian players supplying amply
lush support, and Damrau providing that sense of infinite timelessness a
great interpreter of this song always brings to it.

This is, I think, one of those Strauss recordings where we get a near
remarkable recital of this composer’s lieder and a performance of the Vier letzte Lieder which is less memorable for its soprano
(unfortunately very common these days) but a reminder of the qualities of a
great Strauss conductor. I wouldn’t want to be without this recording for
Diana Damrau’s performances of her ‘Ophelia’ songs, nor her ‘M‰dchenblumen’
– and Helmut Deutsch is as fine a pianist in them as one would hear today.
But nor would I wish to be without the exceptional playing of the Bavarian
Radio Symphony Orchestra which offer something rather special.

Marc Bridle

image_description= Erato 9029530346
product_title=Richard Strauss: Vier letzte Lieder
product_by= Diana Damrau (soprano), Helmut Deutsch (piano), Mariss Jansons (conductor), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
product_id= Erato 9029530346 [CD]