June 2023 Classical Record Reviews

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs; Final Scene from Capriccio
Rachel Willis-Sørensen, soprano; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons, cond.
Sony 824105 (CD, heard as 24/96 WAV download). 2023. Friedemann Engelbrecht, prod. & eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Strauss's sumptuous, late-career Four Last Songs are the final flowering of his romantic genius. Paired on this recording with the Final Scene from his last opera, Capriccio: A Conversation Piece for Music, these four orchestral songs ponder life's eternal mysteries as they swirl, soar, then climax in sound so grand, ecstatic, and intoxicating that the songs are essential repertoire for any soprano with the pipes, intelligence, and breath control to do them justice.

Both works have now found a near-ideal interpretive partnership. In the 11 years since American lyric soprano Willis-Sørensen finished training at the Houston Grand Opera Studio, she has assumed leading roles in many of the world's major opera houses. Although her vocalism is not perfect—a beat occasionally creeps into her voice, and she approaches some high notes from below—she proves herself a profound, beautiful-voiced interpreter of some of the most glorious music ever composed for the soprano voice.

Nelsons, whose of love of Strauss's music glows through our Strauss Record-of-the-Month box set, revels in every orchestral passage. Conducting one of the world's great Strauss orchestras—Strauss himself conducted five concerts and eight opera performances with the Gewandhausorchester, which also gave the world premiere of the orchestral suite from his ballet Schlagobers (Whipped Cream)—Nelsons honors and indulges in each orchestral interlude and instrumental solo as though it was the most significant music ever composed. So deeply do Nelsons and Willis-Sørensen sink into this music that their tempos seem slower than they really are.

For anyone who loves to get high on sound as much as substance, this album is a must.—Jason Victor Serinus

Mahler: Symphony 2 (Resurrection)
Christiane Karg (s), Elisabeth Kulman (a), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, cond.
Pentatone Music PTC5186992 (CD). Holger Urbach, prod.; Stephan Reh, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

From the opening attack, Bychkov's Resurrection grabs your attention. The resonant bassi are alertly accented. The reed entry rides clearly above the strings. Within the movement's turbulence, the aspiring second theme provides needed repose. The development's slow march builds with careful control; dotted rhythms can feel lazy, but the pounding dissonances are crisp.

Past an initial cutesy hesitation, the Ländler strides with confident elegance. The contrasting triplets inject an agitated note, then the basses' accent muddles the scansion. Cellos sing warmly on the first return, and the woodwinds, here and throughout, are nicely daubed into the textures. The "St. Anthony" scherzo whirls cheekily, bassoon and duetting clarinets balanced forward. The forward surges are effective, though self-conscious rather than exuberant.

In "Urlicht," Elisabeth Kulman's burnished alto opens plangently into an urgent upper range, supported by impeccably balanced brasses. Clean bass flourishes launch a finale of near-cataclysmic events. The reeds' march proceeds deliberately; the tutti march is apocalyptic. Starting a new track, the choir entry is heartfelt, with soft-edged attacks, and in the duet, Christiane Karg is well matched with Kulman.

The Czech Phil is an ideal Mahler orchestra, its strings less tapered than of yore, but they don't shrink from Mahler's generous portamentos. The scherzo's sun-drenched trumpet suffers insecure coordination, but the playing is mostly alert and precise.

Sonics are first class, ranging wide without stridency even in the closing perorations, clear with no sacrifice of ambience. The finale's off-stage fanfares mix perspectives vividly, and the soloists' chorus doublings come across unobtrusively. Bravi tutti.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Various composers: Maria Mater Meretrix:
Anna Prohaska, soprano; Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin; Camerata Bern
Alpha739 (CD, reviewed as 24/96). 2023. Louise Burel, prod.; Peter Laenger, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

When has violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja failed to make a provocative record? Here, she joins forces with Anna Prohaska, a marvelous soprano who brings an early music sensibility to contemporary music, and the leaderless Camerata Bern. Alongside her collaborators, "PatKop" creates a uniquely themed recital.

Determined to shatter myths about the so-called equality of women with their counterparts in today's music industry, Kopatchinskaja and Prohaska assembled Maria Mater Meretrix to explore "the three classical female phenomenologies into which, since time immemorial, the (un-female!) eye and ear have divided up the complex being of 'Woman' as Saint, Mother, and Whore." Interspersing music from the 11th century (Hildegard von Bingen's "O rubor sanguinis") with music from the 20th and 21st (by Lili Boulanger, George Crumb, György Kurtág, Hanns Eisler/Bertolt Brecht, and PatKop), the program is unified by the three parts of Frank Martin's Maria-Triptychon that address various portrayals of Mary as Saint, Mother, and Whore.

Fasten your seat belts, because these brilliant, versatile artists take us on quite a journey. What's most striking about the album as a whole is that, save perhaps for the orchestral excerpt "Il Terremoto," from Franz Joseph Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ, much of the early music presented sounds surprisingly modern, especially as arranged for this album. Equally notable is that while much of the "modern" material is unapologetically defiant and irreverent, it shares at its core the same mysticism as early music by Walther von der Vogelweide, Guillaume Dufay, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and others.

An ideal recording for those who love to ponder as much as they love to enjoy and feel.—Jason Victor Serinus

Prokofiev: Symphony No.5
Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, cond.
The Cleveland Orchestra TCO0006 (WAV download). Elaine Martone, prod.; Gintas Norvila, eng.
Performance ***½
Sonics ****

Welser-Möst has a good feel for this familiar symphony, but in fits and starts. Ungainly, untapered bassi leave the opening minutes uniformly thick and full. The textures lighten as the music moves upward, with the brief trumpet interjections intimating the score's lurking violence. The second group has an appealing flow, the violins opening into a full-throated lyric climax. Some attempted rhetoric is stiff owing to the conductor's prosaic rhythmic sense, but the development begins in a magical hush, and pointed, pulsing triplets keep everything moving. I liked the smooth elision into the recap, where the oboe sings easily. The violent climax melts into the brief cello solo.

The scherzo begins incisively, with an unusually shapely, nuanced clarinet solo. The "B" section is relaxed and clear, though the lead-back again gets stuck, starting in slow motion, most of the acceleration coming in the closing bars. Cranky, sclerotic basses at the start of the Adagio aren't promising, but the high violin lines are silky, if a bit by-the-numbers. The somber, characterful "B" section—Welser-Möst seems better attuned to these than to the main themes—melts into a hushed recap. Once past the opening reminiscences, the finale chugs cheerfully along, and the conductor finally finds a markedly lighter touch for the contrasting theme.

There's a hint of background hiss at the very opening: huh? A slightly veiled sonic frame short-changes the strings' characteristic sheen, which is audible without quite being sensual. Conversely, solos from the trumpet and the various reeds are precisely localized, and the piano's contributions register more strongly than in most recordings. "PROKOVIEV" is conspicuously misspelled on the second page of the e-booklet.—Stephen Francis Vasta

Nirodha352's picture

I am sorry but Strauss should be performed by someone who speaks German. Unless you don’t care what someone is singing about.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Perhaps you haven't seen her YouTube videos.

MarkinCal's picture

I enjoyed the Cleveland recording for the most part. But compared to both the Szell and Maazel recordings from the past, which themselves have different interpretive qualities, the new recording does not live up to the famed Cleveland legacy. Articulation sounds replaced by warm masses of sound similar to the recent Don Juan recording, but not as problematic. FWM pushes forward with some intensity, but I don’t find the end result as convincing as his two predecessors. There appears to be a publicity push in Cleveland to diminish Szell’s achievements and raise the stature of FMW’s leadership. Personally, I believe that Szell’s recording legacy will remain prominent for many years to come.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Critic Donald Rosenberg was dismissed from the Cleveland Plain Dealer for repeatedly stating his honest and educated opinion about Welser-Möst.

SteveDisque's picture

I agree with MarkinCal about the Szell version, which is, for my taste, one of the great recordings of the piece, though, oddly, it disappeared from the vinyl listings for some time. (Until it was reissued on Odyssey, I'd not known it *existed*.) The Maazel, I'm less positive about.

FWM is no Szell -- or even Maazel -- but, to be fair, his technique has improved markedly over his Cleveland tenure, at least in the baton-waving sense: he still doesn't display what I think of as an idea of orchestral sound, mostly being content to take what he gets. My complaint is that, unlike the rest of us, he got to learn his craft by standing in front of a great orchestra, and collecting large sums of money as well!