I realise there is room for a sensible debate about how the Strauss Four Last Songs should be done - small-scale pianistic intimate versus large-scale orchestral operatic - but if you are going to do them 'big' I'm not sure this offering from Jessye Norman could be bettered - majestic, soaring, ravishingly beautiful, deeply moving. Once you accept it as a valid interpretation, which I'm glad to do - marvellous!
Jessye Norman sings Strauss' wonderfully evocative songs like no one else and I shall have at least one of them played at my funeral! The Wagner songs are not bad either - just as well sung but not as well written.
Strauss' four last songs are absolute masterpieces. The lyrics of three of them are by Hermann Hesse (one of my favorite writers and poets); the lines of the fourth lied are by Joseph von Eichendorff. Therefore, the mastery and the mellow artistry of the last Richard Strauss (here saying a serene adieu to his earthly experience and preparing to the next life of his soul) joined to the high poetry of Hesse/Eichendorff create the miracle.
In my opinion Wagner's lieder stay, from an artistic point of view, one or two steps below. Mathilde Wesendonk's lyrics are quite good and touching, but obviously hers is an amateur poetry and it suffers a bit from mannerism and a Decadent posture. The orchestration is not by Wagner, but by Felix Mottl. He is an excellent Wagnerian specialist and a gifted musician, but the orchestral effect lacks the involving density and originality of the Master. Therefore, in Strauss' case, the absolute excellence of Norman/Masur's performance gives plentiful evidence of the artistry virtually contained in the score; in Wagner's case, the superb performance by Norman/Davis improves the artistic interest of the compositions.
In general terms, Norman's timbre is not of my preferred kind; but a judgement on a vocal timbre, due to the numberless elements that in human voice contribute to determine it, is deeply affected by the individualities of taste. Anyway, here, both in Strauss and in Wagner, she sings astonishingly, quite incredibly, well. Her voice continuously sends shivers down to your spine. It flows from her mouth effortless, dense, perfectly modulated, in every register, from pianissimo to fortissimo and from an astonishing smooth cue to the end of the pitch or of the phrase. Then her voice floats, weightless but steady, in the air, perfectly melting with harmonies coming from the orchestra. But the real miracle is that such a perfect virtuoso technique is completely enslaved to meaning, in a context-sensitive masterful interpretation.
The great and humble (in the sense that he serves music and not vice-versa) Kurt Masur finds the way to englobe the gorgeous vocal leading line in harmonies and countermelodies produced by his Gewandhausorchester Leipzig without overlaps, but perfectly melting everything. Colin Davis is one of my preferred conductors of his generation, but I did not know him in Wagner. In my opinion, his performance here is really great and matches his celebrated performances in the Berlioz's solo voice+orchestra repertoire: Le Nuits d'Ete, Lelio, Herminie, Cleopatre. He, the London Symphony and, obviously, an ineffable Jessye Norman, give thickness and interest to compositions maybe not robust enough for aiming at the sublime.
The original sound is a 1982 DDD in Strauss and a 1975 ADD in Wagner. In my opinion, Strauss sounds a bit more detailed, with well separated sound layers, but a little bit chilly and flat, while Wagner sounds warmer and deeper, but just a little bit confused. I do not like the use of headphones in listening to music, particularly to this kind of music that has to freely expand and to breath plentifully in the air; by chance I have listened to this CD also through headphones, and my personal impression is that Strauss gains something, while Wagner loses. Anyway, the superb content of this CD will enrich you and your collection with some of the purest expressions of vocal artistry.
This is the definitive recording of "Four Last Songs". No-one else achieves that unearthly quality, that enormous sound, the rich, amazing tone that Jessye Norman brings to these beautiful songs. I have tried everyone else's renditions but I keep coming back to Jessye's; it doesn't get any better than this.
If you always thought Strauss was a bit of a lightweight, prepare to have your mind changed. Here is the most sublime voice delivering these songs with a clarity and all-enveloping passion that speaks straight to your soul. If you manage to get through the Strauss without weeping buckets so heartfelt is Jessye Norman's delivery of all 4 songs, Wagner's "Schmerzen" will tip you over the edge. Beautiful, deeply melancholic but absolutely worth every second of breath-taking, breath-holding but ultimately life-affirming fabness.
I've tried to keep an open mind when listening to other recordings of the Four Last Songs but no other singer has ever come close to Jessye Norman's performance. Wagner's Wesendonk sit well alongside the Strauss and for those who don't know Wagner's songs are an excellent introduction.