We are hearing how it must have sounded in the Grunewaldkirche.
RICHARD STRAUSS: Vier letzte Lieder – Orchestral songs: Muttertändelei, Op. 43 No. 2; Waldseligkeit, Op. 49 No. 1; Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1; Freundliche Vision, Op. 48 No. 1; Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland Op. 56 No. 6 – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop.. Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./ George Szell – Warner Classics/ Parlophone 0825646049646 vinyl, 38:84 (11-6-15) ****(*):
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was born in 1915, and came to symbolize the ultimate operatic drama queen in the core German opera, operetta, recital and various other repertoires, with numerous excursions into other shores. To celebrate her centenary, Warner Classics has re-released the original LP of her recordings of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs and four earlier orchestral songs, recorded in September 1965 with George Szell and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The performances were an odd couple pairing of the coquettish soprano with the disciplinarian conductor; the combination produced heady results. Szell focused on giving the subtly Technicolor orchestra the clear direction it needed in what is treacherously flexible but gorgeous Romantic music, letting Schwarzkopf, just past her glorious prime, the extra room and emotional dimensions she needed to float and phrase the high notes with the sublime ease of her youth. The two master musicians are most successful in the four orchestral songs; in the Four Last Songs, the whole cast and crew seem less committed and the sound a touch more diffuse.
The recording venue was the Grunewaldkirche, Berlin; the producer was Schwarzkopf’s husband, the legendary Walter Legge. The sound was rich in the German way at the time, compromising accuracy a bit for atmosphere, perhaps with an ear cocked towards what they thought would be the future: quadraphonic sound; still, it was impressive, large stage, transparent, with a lot of spatial information. Not a lot of time, of course, but if you believe in vinyl, it’s not about time at all.
This vinyl re-issue is spectacularly audiophile in the four orchestral songs, casually throwing off moment after moment of instrumental splashes of texture and color while Schwarzkopf is singing her mildly-mannered heart out. When the original vinyl came out in 1965, each of the major Western EMI branches – France, the UK and the USA – mastered the original tapes to sound presentable to their markets, and largely failed. We are hearing, perhaps now for the first time, how it must have sounded in the Grunewaldkirche those first three days of September, 1965.
The reissue sports Angus McBean’s portrait on the cover, and an intoxicating flurry of photos by Reg Wilson on the inside fold, but no liner notes of any kind.