08 Jan 2020

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

“How weary we are of wandering/Is this perhaps death?” These closing words of ‘Im Abendrot’, the last of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, and the composer’s own valedictory work, now seem unusually poignant since they stand as an epitaph to Mariss Jansons’s final Strauss recording.

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

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, ‘Frühling’. 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 ‘Frühling’ 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 slouch).

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 unconsciousness.

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 wandermüde/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 ‘Mädchenblumen’ 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 ‘Mädchenblumen’ - 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