Time was when a listener could hardly find many recordings of these orchestral songs by Richard Strauss. That did not matter so much, so long as the available catalog included the likes of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf under Szell with the LSO on EMI, or her earlier mono EMI disc under Ackermann?
Then we sort of exploded into plenty of really good discs being released. Along with Schwarzkopf, I still have Jessye Norman, Jane Eaglen, Elisabeth Soderstrom, Christine Brewer, Kiri Te Kanawa, Monserrat Caballe, Leontyne Price, Soile Isokowski, Sylvia Sass, Arleen Auger, Lucia Popp, Felicity Lott, Gundula Janowitz, and Renee Fleming on my fav shelves. A real, lost sleeper disc on the old Rodolphe label has Theresa Zylis-Gara as the soprano solo singer, backed up by the Hannover Radio band under Franz Paul Decker - hard to find but very worth the effort. Now I can add this Heather Harper disc to my keeper lists without any reservations whatsoever. (What didn't I like? Well the Ricarda Merbeth on Naxos flopped? Nina Stemme, too, though I really loved how Antonio Pappano handled the Covent Garden orchestra. And, compared to Szell, I do not hear that the very competent conducting by Kurt Masur, Andrew Davis, Christoph Eschenbach, Andre Previn, and even Sir Georg Solti quite measures completely up - but, oh those voices, those voices, those voices!)
Part of the buyer's appeal here is that Classics For Pleasure is an unashamed budget label, so the disc offers a very good reading of these orchestral songs at an really affordable price. Students and people on budgets take note. Other song-lovers take note, too.
The sound is as good as red book CD stereo ever gets. No complaints there.
Richard Hickox can come across on discs as a solid but average conductor. He hardly ever does anything terribly wrong, but his tendencies for driving properly in the middle of the music roads can also leave him sounding a tad too ordinary to my ears. Happily, he gets everything just right in all of these songs. I cannot fault his tempo choices, nor his felicitous handling of the band (including all those tricky Straussian gear shifts and flowing tonal balances among the various departments of the band.) The LSO is simply on best behavior here, too. These orchestral songs are full of passing solo moments when somebody in the band needs to stand out without overly show-boating at the expense of either the singer or the overall musical fabric - and the solo players in the LSO demonstrate again how well they handle their spotlights while still listening to everybody else involved, including the star solo singer. Not least, the leader and the band are listening to the composer.
So far as the accompaniment goes, then, each song unfolds as the contained dramatic scena that its verse indicates. One appreciates anew how imaginatively the composer handled his varied poets, and though it is quite fashionable to rate Strauss as a second-tier composer, hearing his songs again reminds me that this second tier (if, indeed, we are on a second tier of western classical music) is still high enough to make cosmic and ethereal impressions that few listeners would forgo.
Heather Harper was a working soprano in the British Isles, and nobody wishes her ill. I have found sometimes that a past recording was not a keeper. In these orchestral songs I hear plenty worth keeping. She has no problems with range, and Strauss does ask his soprano to dip and soar as the song unfolds. Harper has no problem making herself heard through and above the band, either. And although I am no expert in Germanistik, her handling of the language and the texts seems unproblematic, even as knowing at times as, say, Schwarzkopf.
On this disc, the deeper impression is a glowing one, all about the composer and his vision and his musical gifts. That is just as it should be. What a wonderful stocking stuffer gift for the 2008 holidays. Yes - get this one, no quibbles, no drag. Five Stars.