I have been on a Strauss thing lately, in and around all the Verdi. Probably I will soon have to go back to nothing but Handel and Mozart for a week or two to clear my head.
Today, it was this.
There are two items on this CD, one Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and the other Dorothea Röschmann singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs, which is the reason I am talking about this. As far as I am aware there is no law against discussing only thirty percent of a recording, and so that is what I am going to do.
If in general you like the way Röschmann sounds, you will probably like this. I read one review of it on a website that that is usually fairly good in terms of reviews, and that reviewer basically said that it didn’t sound like it was supposed to sound and that s/he found it boring, except the precise wording was more sarcastic than that. Which was not really helpful. (But that particular reviewer can be kind of an asshole – I think it was the same person who reviewed some DVD of Madame Butterfly and went on this tirade about how the soprano singing Butterfly, an Italian singer whose name I can’t recall right now, wasn’t pretty enough, something like ‘her nose deserves its own zip code and so do her feet and her teeth are bad.’ Gosh, with all that to worry about, who cares what she sounded like?)
But perhaps I should talk about the recording I actually listened to.
In general Röschmann’s strengths are intensity and subtlety – she is always doing more with the text than you first realize. This is what makes her such a phenomenal Lieder singer. Anyway. In terms of works for stage or works with an orchestra, I personally think that she does better with Mozart and Handel than she does with Strauss, but that is neither here nor there given that Strauss is what she has elected to sing in this instance. So in a sense, I can see the abovementioned reviewer’s point, insofar as the point was ‘this is not what I am accustomed to hearing’ and not ‘Röschmann is not Janowitz or Jessye Norman and therefore I dislike this CD’ — but I would not have put it in quite the way that writer did. For one thing, I wasn’t bored.
As a performance, the strength of this is in Röschmann’s attention to the details of the text (texts and translations may be found here). With the first verse of “Frühling,” for example, every word has color. Similarly, the last verse of “Beim Schlafengehen” has an effortless elegance that both sounds beautiful and perfectly evokes the meaning of the text, e.g. at ‘in freien Flügen.’ There is a richness to the interpretation that is very beautiful. And in terms of style, those Straussian swells and drops in the last verse of “Frühling” are rendered very elegantly. The middle section of this song reminded me that the very top of her voice can sound slightly narrow; it’s the middle that has the most fullness and gloss.
In parts of “September” she is swamped by the orchestra. In general, there is something slightly weird about the way they’ve engineered this recording. This may be my speakers; I don’t know. But it’s odd. If I had never heard her sing Strauss other than this, or if I’d never heard her sing Mahler (e.g. live with the NY Phil at their September 11th memorial concert last fall) I would think based on this that there is a mismatch between the size of her voice and the size of the music, but again, based on what I’ve heard elsewhere I think this is an artifact of the recording itself.
Issues of sound balace aside, “September” is wonderful in terms of expression. Even if I wasn’t predisposed to like this, she would have had me by “sehnt sich nach Ruh” and that last soft “zu” is perfect as it fades away into the orchestral sound. We get something similar in the last song, “Im Abendrot,” with the final, bell-like sound on ‘ist dies etwa der Tod.’
I have read people complaining that Röschmann’s breathing is weird. Normally I discount picky criticisms of singing technique because I don’t know the first thing about it and I half suspect that 75% of the people making such criticisms don’t either. But in this case the people who point this out are referencing something specific, usually the Salzburg 06 Figaro where there are some bits, e.g. ‘dove sono’ where you’re left wondering why she breaks up the phrasing like that. But based on what I’m hearing with the Strauss the odd phrasing in that Mozart performance was deliberate, and if you listen to it you can make a guess as to why. It may also have had something to do with singing the damn thing while walking slowly down a flight of stairs and fooling around with a dress. Who knows.
Anyway. I have a tendency to dissect things. Hang around me too much and you will be hearing everything in fifteen second increments. So after I wrote the above, I stretched out on the couch with a beer and listened to the whole thing again without making a single note. The impression I come away with is of a lovely, shimmering expressive sound that moves in and out of the sound of the orchestra and sort of holds the words of the text – nothing rushed, everything thoughtfully placed, and all of it sung with that typical understated Röschmann intensity that is one of my favorite things about her singing.