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The Autumnal Glow Of Strauss' Four Last Songs

Richard Strauss wrote his first song when he was 6 years old, and he continued to write songs all of his life. His Four Last Songs, written just a year before his death at age 85, is an intentional summary of his life and work. When it came close to the end, it was fitting that Strauss would look back over his career — in which he had carried on a love affair with the soprano voice — and write songs for soprano and orchestra. The last two of the Four Last Songs are called "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going to Sleep) and "Im Abendrot" (At Twilight). The poetic impulse in these songs speaks of the ends of things, but it also looks out over the horizon of eternity.

Jessye Norman's Force Of Nature

Strauss wrote the Four Last Songs with an ideal voice in mind, and it was his dying request that the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad sing the premiere, which she did a few months after the composer's death. There are very few instances, however, in which the ideal artist emerges to interpret a work long after the composer is gone.

No soprano since Flagstad has had the opulent voice, the extraordinary amplitude and the beauty of diction and tone that Jessye Norman possesses in her 1982 recording. I don't think any soprano has accomplished as much with this music as Norman has.

She has impeccable control over the phrasing, singing extremely long-breathed lines at the softest dynamic, yet with full tone. Very few singers can shape lines that go over many seconds with such an enormous scale of sound. It's an extraordinary voice, employed with extraordinary artistry. What Norman does in the song "Beim Schlafengehen" is one of my favorite moments in recorded music.

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Ted Libbey
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