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4.7 out of 5 stars22
4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 20 March 2011
I must enthusiastically recommend this recording of 2 great Strauss masterpieces (4 Last Songs and Metamorphosen) and Tod und Verklarung, a work which does not seem quite on the same level (although I enjoyed listening to it immensely). Putting it in a nutshell, I thought the performances of 4 Last Songs and Tod und Verklarung were masterly, and made a huge impact on me; I was somewhat less taken by the performance of Metamorphosen, but I think the disc deserves 5 stars from an overall point of view. I found it quite a revelation as I am a comparative newcomer to the music of Strauss. Now for a bit more detail.

I have tried to assess the merits of the performances by comparing other recordings I have, but since these are limited in number I am in no position to suggest which is absolutely the best recording of any of these works.

Firstly, Four Last Songs: I previously was only familiar with the Jessye Norman/Masur recording, which I thought marvellous. However, I think it is surpassed by Janowitz and Karajan. Janowitz has a most beautiful, light-toned voice, and she performs these songs with great emotional range-from the withdrawn to the intense-which I found very effective. I am not quite so enthusiastic about Norman/Masur's performance now, which sometimes seems to have a somewhat cloying quality. I found some of Norman's high notes in the first two stanzas of the first song off-puttingly loud, the volume not being justified by the text.

Secondly, Tod und Verklarung: I thought this performance magnificent, and was particularly struck by the yearning, striving quality Karajan brings to the music leading up to the return of the Transfiguration theme and also thereafter, culminating in a truly cosmos-shattering climax (wonderfully handled by Karajan). The serenity at the end of the piece is superbly conveyed too. As regards the other performances: One is Furtwangler and Hamburg Philharmonic. This performance has loads of raw energy, but the sound quality is often poor, and the orchestral playing has plenty of rough edges (although I occasionally missed the roughness of the playing when listening to Karajan). The other is Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra. This performance seemed wooden in comparison with the other two, and was the one I least enjoyed (I enjoyed Karajan the most).

Thirdly, Metamorphosen: This is pretty difficult music to get into, and it has an obsessive quality which I found rather disturbing. I compared Karajan's performance with Furtwangler and the BPO, and Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic. I enjoyed the Rattle the most, which seemed to me a full-blooded, passionate interpretation. Some of Karajan's interpretion seemed (from an overall perspective) rather anaemic in comparison; the sound quality was also occasionally rather muddy. However, there is some particularly beautiful music towards the end of the piece (for me this music is the emotional centre of the piece), where Karajan's emotional restraint seems to fall away, with breathtaking effect. The Furtwangler performance is full of drama and passion, but rather tails away at the end (he rather skates over the passage I mention above). The sound quality of the Furtwangler is not too bad at all.

Overall, though this is a disc I will treasure, and which makes me want to explore the world of Richard Strauss further.

Antony Ornstin
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Karajan was always a superb Straussian, even as far back as 1958 when he opened his DG account with an Ein Heldenleben that has hardly been bettered. The 1970s saw him return for mindblowing recordings of, for example, Zarathustra, Tod Und Verklarung (included here), and best of all: The Four Last Songs.

Karajan's 'discovery', Gundula Janowitz was at the height of her powers when they made this unrivalled recording. Some choose to drop other names, but they know they're kidding themselves. Janowitz's angelically beautiful voice, allied with the refulgent tones of Karajan's Berliners, provides the most voluptuously beautiful Strauss recording there is. Singer and accompaniment as one. It's true you can have too much of a good thing and I for one have tossed out various recordings of this singer from my CD collection over the years, but never this one. It is sans pareil.

UPDATE (09/2014): listening to HvK's London recording of Tod, there's more narrative light and shade, but when the music needs to burn through the stratosphere, to dive into the heart of the Sun, it's the Berliners who have the tonal resources to make that happen.
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on 9 March 2012
This disc could almost be titled `Richard Strauss and the Getting of Wisdom'.

Mahler remarked to his fellow composer that he sought redemption through his art. Strauss reported this dialogue to Klemperer in 1911, adding his own bemused comment: "I'm not sure what it is that I'm supposed to be redeemed from . . . . when I sit at my desk in the morning and an idea comes into my head, I surely don't need redemption."

This was said with all the confidence of Wilhelmine Germany. Some thirty years later, having watched evil lap at the very door of his villa at Garmisch, the composer had a different appreciation of matters; the score of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet accompanied him on his death-bed.

These three works reflect this demarcation. Tod und Verklarung is an orchestral showpiece par excellence. There is next to nothing `under the bonnet' - but again, is one not allowed to revel in the gorgeous orchestral textures for their own sake? The Metamorphosen and the Four Last Songs operate in a different sphere. It would be wrong to say that Strauss was seeking redemption in such works: he was pretty much metaphysics-proof until the day he died. Even so, he boarded Charon's boat as a wiser, more tempered man whose world had been swept away by barbarism.

The triptych receive near ultimate-performances from Janowitz, Herbie and the Berliners. In Tod und Verklarung, the orchestral torque is stunning - to my ears, they failed to recapture it in the digital remake. Even a headless chook such as Norman Lebrecht has conceded that Karajan could take such secondary works - run with it - and persuade the listener of their greatness: such is the case here. The Four Last Songs is arguably the best performance on disc. When Janowitz sings "O weiter, stille Friede! So tief im Abendrot!" in that creamy, Mater Gloriosa tone of hers, it takes a hardy soul not to self-immolate on the spot. The Metamorphosen is magisterial. It is played in one titanic sweep. One knows that it is coming; one prepares as best as one can - but when the Eroica theme appears in the double basses, one almost kneels like a Kollowitz funerary statue in response. "Thus is the body dead but the spirit is life."

Even the cover itself adds to the lustre of the achievement. In the last days of LPs, goaded by the shade of my old buddy Ajax, I gratuitously bought a copy (which carried the same photograph) and hung it up on the wall: "Light, light - if only to die in."

Gun stuff. And a big gun too.
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on 12 January 2014
It's a long story. I'm effectively blind now, but in 1999 I cycled from the coast in Normandy to the Mediterrean, and played a music
tape of this music in my tent each night! fell in love with it and Gundula!!
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on 23 May 2011
Starting with the most satisfying aspect of this CD, in my opinion, I have to say that Karajan's conception of Tod und Verklarung is magnificent: atmospheric and very mysterious at the opening - building to an overpowering climax towards the end. The sound of the Berlin Philharmonic strings is ravishing, as one would expect, and the horns at the famous transfiguration motif are resplendent. 5 stars for this performance.

The Four Last Songs have been recorded copiously since the late 1950s, and it is often difficult to choose one recording which tops every other (an almost impossible task in my opinion). In this recording, Janowitz sings with her usual golden tone and sustains the line particularly well in the last two songs. Karajan provides a luxurious bed of sound for her to spin her vocal line and the attention to detail is admirable. The reason I would only give 4 stars is a personal niggle - in Fruhling I just wish that Karajan would let the musical line flow a bit more (it is Spring after all!), in places it tends to sound a tad indulgent. Karajan is by no means the slowest in this first song, but there are other more recent recordings (Soile Isokoski) where a more accurate portrayal of Spring has been achieved. So, 4 stars for this interpretation.

I have to admit to not being so keen on Metamorphosen, so I will not comment as much on this piece. Whilst the Berlin strings are at their inspired best in this recording, I cannot help thinking that the work itself resembles a piece of chewing gum that has been stretched as far as it can go - and then some! I'm sure this piece has its legions of fans out there, and I realise the intention of the work was to commemorate the German victims of the Dresden bombings I believe, but after trying again and again to understand it, I still have to hold up my hands and say "nope, don't get it at all." Oh well, my loss I suppose.

Final point: sound quality is superb. Lovely warm, rich stereo sound with no glare that sometimes accompanies Karajan's later DG recordings. 5 stars for this side of things.
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on 30 July 2004
I have heard both the Oboe concerto and Four Last Songs described as, 'slush corner'. Even if you find sympathy with that idea, on this disc the programme is spiked with the searing string piece Metamorphosen; written by Strauss in grief over the events of the Second World War. Karajan does not unduly smooth the shaping of the piece which would loose its bite.
However most people will buy this disc for the Four Last Songs. It depends whether you want the word pointing of say Schwarzkopf, or whether you can accept the rapt beauty of Janowitz who to an extent becomes another instrument of the orchestra. That is not to say she is bland, she unerringly creates mood and there can never have been a more beautiful voice employed in these songs. I return again and again to this disc. The Oboe concerto is said not to be a masterpiece, but to my ears it saturates the ear with melody and is beautifully performed. This disc has been available at full, medium and bargain price over the years, but has never been out of the catalogue which tells us something about its appeal.
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on 23 April 2005
I bought this disc without the slightest idea of what to expect. The orchestral works don't really do anything much for me, I must admit, but the songs.....I can't remember the point at which they became essential listening. There's nothing slushy about them - "glowingly beautiful" is how they were described by one reviewer. I get completely lost in them, and having the text of the poems to read serves to heighten the effect. I was surprised when a friend returned the disc and said he thought they were okay. For me they are heaven, matched only by Mahler's Ruckert Lieder and Kindertotenlieder. And this is the only recording to have - I have several others, but they don't come anywhere near the perfection of Gundula Janowitz.
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on 30 July 2015
What a lovely disc this is! Herbert Von Karajan is a superb conductor who, despite his reputation for being an autocrat, shows great sensitivity in this music. I am certain he must have known Ricard Strauss, after all they were both in Berlin at the same time, and would therefore have known how the music should sound...

But the best is the last:- The four last songs, so lovely and fulll of gentle pathos, and to be sung by the wonderful, almost orgasmic pure voiced Gundula Janovitz! I could listen to her voice forever.

I am not musically qualified to criticize this recording, or say there are better versions available, I don't care, if they don't have that voice, they don't compare. Tribute bands copy Freddie Mercury but they aren't the real deal, the same applies here. There's no comparison in my (highly biased) opinion.
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on 17 January 2011
This very traditional recording is very pleasant to listen to. One can tell it is not recent but we wanted that feeling in the presentation of the work. I had not heard of Gundula Janowitz but she sings beautifully and with great feeling for the words of Strauss.
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on 27 July 2015
I like to imagine that, when one dies, it's the voice of Gundula Janowitz that one hears as one reaches the other side. Such is the beauty of her, yes, 'creamy' voice, that it's hard to retain one's composure whenever one hears it. My word, what a voice.

Herbert does his level best to match her and, of course, he has a recording venue in Berlin's Jesus-Christus-Kirche that seems to produce a sound worthy of the gods. Praise be. Only his decision not to impart a tad more of his trademark silky smooth legato into the ethereal wonders of Im Abendrot surprises me. Let us assume that he knew precisely what he was doing.

You will almost certainly not find a more beautiful sounding rendition of the Four Last Songs than this - even if you live to be 100.

Greatness lives here.
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