A pair of recent performances of Strauss’s (almost) swan songs brings home to me how many choices there are to make for intelligent perfomers in great music that is often treated, by many listeners and some musicians, as a warm bath, scented with post-Wagnerian muscle relaxant.
Wake up! This is Richard Strauss, unrepentant adapter of texts, besetter of librettists from Hugo von Hofmannsthal to Clemens Krauss. When he chooses to set poetry as written, he wants us to hear it. On 12 March, Camilla Tilling redefined the cycle’s usual vocalise-associations with keening melismas and transparent orchestral support from the Gothenburg SO under Marc Minkowski, who brings to Strauss the rhythmic buoyancy that distinguished his Rameau and Handel in years gone by.
A couple of hours to the east and a month later, on 11 April Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO partnered a more conventionally ‘Wagnerian’ soprano, Emily Magee, who has been a favourite at Bayreuth for years. But she simply accentuates how that word ‘Wagnerian’, once a byword for inflated, indigestible grandeur, has lost all identifiable meaning. Sure, the tempi are slower, the vibrato wider, the tone often more occluded – but the text comes first. Gone are the days when record companies could fruitlessly fight with the estate of Hermann Hesse, author of the first three songs, for permission to print translations or even texts. But then, do you need the words to listen to Jessye Norman’s famous recording with Kurt Masur? Aren’t they somewhat beside the point? No longer.
Are Magee and Tilling then in their ways ‘authentic’ incarnations of voice-types and singers Strauss knew and coached and admired, such as Kirsten Flagstad and Elisabeth Schumann? Of course not, they are too good for that: they are themselves. But they and their conductors, and others like them, should prompt us to re-evaluate an ‘anniversary’ composer whom it’s always possible to think we know well enough. Strauss was a sly one, and even when saying goodbye he leaves a smile. Did you know there was a fifth last song, entitled ‘Malven’? Malven are hollyhocks, ‘gently drifting on the wind’…