Saturday, August 21, 2010

Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht

















At age 84, Richard Strauss composed Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). A leading figure of German Romanticism, Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder, with lyrics taken from the poetry of Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, expresses a peaceful acceptance of death. Strauss's own death was imminent - he passed away before the premiere of this, his final composition.

Vier Letzte Lieder has been performed and recorded on innumerable occasions since its premiere in 1950, by sopranos as diverse as Renée Fleming, Jessye Norman, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I was lucky enough to attend a live performance of Vier Letzte Lieder in 2007, performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. But there is, for me, one seminal recording which far surpasses all of these: the 1973 version by famed conductor Herbert von Karajan and soprano Gundula Janowitz, with the Berlin Philharmonic. Particularly in her transcendental rendition of the third lied, "Beim Schlafengehen," the amazing Janowitz achieves something the other sopranos cannot: a perfect vocal expression of life slipping away.