R. STRAUSS: 17 Lieder; Brentano Lieder, Op. 68 – Diana Damrau, soprano/Munich Philharmonic /Christian Thielemann – Virgin Classics

by | May 29, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

R. STRAUSS: 17 Lieder; Brentano Lieder, Op. 68 – Diana Damrau, soprano/Munich Philharmonic /Christian Thielemann – Virgin Classics 628664 0 8, 71:09 ****:

A labor of love this album, since German coloratura soprano Diana Damrau (b. 1971) acknowledges that for this, her fourth commercial album, she wished to honor Strauss the composer of orchestral songs, after having already proved herself in the roles such as Zerbinetta, Sophie, Zdenka, and Fiakermill.  She finds “the treasure trove to be found” in his songs a combination of “poetry, soaring melodies, and. . .shimmering instrumental scoring positively intoxicating.” The opportunity to perform “under the baton of. . .Maestro Thielemann in. . .my Bavarian homeland was a dream come true.” Much in the tradition set by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Viorica Ursuleac, and Elisabeth Schumann, Damrau interpolates the 1918 set of six songs by Clemens Brentano, rarely enough performed as a set, given the songs’ demanding tessitura, breath control, and pitch accuracy. Thielemann’s own contribution floats, diaphanous, clear, eminently and voluptuously pellucid.

Altogether, Strauss composed some forty orchestral songs, many inspired by his wife Pauline, whom he considered an ideal interpreter in this medium. Nature, spiritual comfort, domestic love, and beauty dominate as themes in the Strauss poetic canon; he seems generally less morbid or concerned with mortality than say, Schubert.  The harmonies often mix in a hazy alchemy to suggest a land of dreams or some metaphysical consolation, as in “Winterweihe” or the openly sensuous “An die Nacht.” Two Dehmel poems, “Waldseligkeit” and “Wiegenlied,” achieve a kind of pantheistic or pietest spirituality, especially the latter, which Damrau renders with the same gentle plasticity we know from Elisabeth Schumann and more recently from Jessye Norman. Mackay’s poem “Tomorrow” (“Morgen”) already points to the Four Last Songs with its violin and harp obbligato. Dedicated to Pauline on their wedding day–along with Caecilie”–in 1894, the music captures something of Tristan’s haunted passion in forbidden love. The 1885 “Allerseelen” concludes the first Strauss collection of songs from Op. 10. A lover places flowers on the grave of his beloved on All Soul’s Day, and we can hear the Strauss rhetorical convention of the “epilogue” that invests many of his symphonic poems and operas. “Caecilie” opens with a huge chord of which we hear echoes in the last of the Four Last Songs, an ardent love song both erotic and connubial.

Just recently, I auditioned the great German baritone Heinrich Schlusnus in the Strauss
 “Zueignung,”  so Damrau’s version of the 1940 orchestral version comes at an opportune time, a seamlessly transparent exhortation of gratitude for the power of love. A tripping delicacy informs “Das Rosenband,” another conceit of binding love that momentarily asks the violin to sing the soprano’s joy. Perhaps the culmination of the beatification of love comes in “Der Dichters Abendgang” after Johann Ludwig Uhland, in which soaring melismas disperse any dark clouds from life to reveal illumined paths of glory. The poet’s “Dann ist’s vollbracht” (“it is finished”) seems an obvious allusion to Jesus’ own messianic vision. “Amor” of the Brentano set fuses high coloratura virtuosity to pantheistic impishness. The last of the Brentano group, “Lied der Frauen,” assumes a tragic pose akin to The Trojan Women, a feminine lament for those men possibly lost to misadventure, war, or some vain quest. Though the poem concludes on a note of hope that “the clouds disperse” and the sunlight of homecoming and victory awaits, the song might well be an evocation of the 1918 defeat of Germany in WW I, and the realization that a way of life recedes into a romanticized past. But even the Strauss capacity for naiveté reveals itself in the 1933 “Das Bachlein,” in which a brooklet ripples with thoughts of its destiny, was dedicated to none other infamous personage than Joseph Goebbels, a perverse union of art and opportunism that might find something like redemption in Damrau’s artful realization.

–Gary Lemco

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