STRAUSS: Four Last Songs. Closing Scene from Capriccio. Excerpts from Arabella.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano; Anny Felbermayer, soprano; Josef Metternich, Walter Berry and Harald Proglhof, baritones; Murray Dickie, tenor; Philharmonia Orch/Otto Ackermann and Lovro von Matacic (Arabella), cond.

STRAUSS:  Four Last Songs.  Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24. Metamorphosen.
Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Berlin Philharmonic Orch/Herbert von Karajan, cond.
 Deutsche Grammophon 447 422 (F) (ADD) TT:  77:11
STRAUSS:  Four Last Songs. Five Orchestral Songs.  Suite from Der Rosenkavalier  
Renée Fleming, soprano; Houston Symphony Orch/Christoph Eschenbach, cond. 
RCA/BMG  68539 (F) (DDD) TT:  68:55

Once again EMI has reissued the historic Elisabeth Schwarzkopf 1953 recording of Four Last Songs, sounding better than ever, a well-balanced mono recording , made under the keen ear of her producer-husband, Walter Legge.  This music was a specialty of Schwarzkopf and it is fortunate that she recorded it when she was in her prime; her 1965 Berlin recording with George Szell conducting (which is about three minutes longer than the first) retains the insight into the music but her voice isn't as secure -- although from a sonic viewpoint the latter stereo recording is quite superior.  The first time Schwarzkopf performed Four Last Songs was in 1951 with Paul Kletzki conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, after which she then sang them often with leading orchestras.  In 1964 she sang them with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Szell, and I vividly remember a performance with the Baltimore Symphony under Massimo Freccia in November 1957 when she sang the music more expansively than on the 1953 recording, with a seemingly endless breath supply.   CD notes refer to a recording of a 1956 London concert with Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra; I don't know of this ever being issued on CD—it surely would be fascinating to hear.  A later live performance with Karajan/Berlin PO, briefly available on CD, is quite disappointing—an off day for both the soprano and orchestra. The new EMI issue is filled out with the final scene from Capriccio, and almost forty minutes of excerpts from Arabella in which she is joined by Anny Felbermayer (Zdenka), Josef Metternich (Mandryka), Harald Pröghöf (Dominik), Murray Dickie (Elemer) and Walter Berry (Lamoral), a recording made in 1954.  Texts are provided for all but the Arabella excerpts which have only a synopsis of each track.

Gundula Janowitz's 1974 recording with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic deserved reissue in their "Legendary Recordings" series.  It is magnificent in every way but one —the balance overly favors the soprano.  If you wish to hear the lustrous accompaniment provided by the BPO/Karajan you'll have to watch playback levels. As proof  Janowitz could provide the same magic in a live performance, investigate her performance from the 1968 Holland Festival with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (available on Philips 462 947).

Renée Fleming's 1995 recording is surely one of the finest ever made.  It is quite similar in many ways to Schwarzkopf's early recording, but fuller in sound without any loss of sensitivity. It is about five minutes faster than Schwarzkopf's first recording, two minutes faster than her second. Fleming has the benefit of what unquestionably is the finest playing of the accompaniment ever set to disks.  Eschenbach brings out countless details other conductors skip over; there is incredible sensitivity to phrasing, really quite remarkable.  The only debit is that here the solo voice is overly prominent, not so much so as on the Janowitz DG version, but still a bit too much in climaxes. All three of these recordings are essential to anyone who loves Strauss's magnificent music.

R.E.B. (January 2001)