STRAUSS:  Four Last Songs.  Kirsten Flagstad, soprano/Philharmonia Orch/Wilhelm Furtw”ngler (May 22, 1950). STRAUSS:  Three songs (Befreit, Allerseelen, C”cilie).  Kirsten Flagstad/San Francisco Orch/Gaetano Morola (Oct. 10, 1950).   WAGNER:  excerpts from The Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger.  Flagstad/Set Svanholm, tenor/San Francisco Orch/Morola (October 9, 1949).  Desert Island Disc program with Flagstad, London (April 23, 1952).

Today's audiences might be surprised to know that Kirsten Flagstad sang the world premiere of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs.  Today lighter voices are usually heard in these; collectors are acquainted with the two Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recordings as well as numerous others including RenČe Fleming, Gundula Janowitz, Jessye Norman, Lucia Popp and Cheryl Studer.   The 1950 premiere was in Royal Albert Hall and it is remarkable there is no official  audio document of the occasion exists in acceptable sound.  The performance  has been issued on pirate disks before.  Here it is in the best sound ever --  but this is a guarded recommendation.  Obviously it was  taken from noisy 78 rpm acetates, replete with clicks and other non-musical sounds that probably could not be filtered out without compromising the sound.  In the final song, "Im Abendrot," it's obvious during the last minute or so that a quite expert splice from another recording has been introduced, although at the end, with a change of ambience, we are back to the original for the applause. 

Flagstad's performance is majestical; this is just two years before she made her famous recording of Tristan and Isolde with Furtwangler conducting (the one in which Schwarzkopf sang a high C for her).  Flagstad's  cool approach  (were the quick tempi her choice or Furtwangler's?) is not inappropriate for the music, and it is odd that in the first song, "Frühling,"  she sings a lower note than written in the  final line of the second stanza.  Flagstad says in the interview on this CD that she admired Strauss's music, in particular Der Rosenkavalier, and that she sang a performance of Beethoven's Ninth at Bayreuth with him conducting many years earlier. However, her impersonal reading of the Four Last Songs is mostly of historic interest, particularly considering the sub-standard sound.  It seems she only performed Four Last Songs on this one occasion..

Also  we have three Strauss songs recorded during a San Francisco broadcast of five months later, and a Wagner concert from San Francisco the previous year in which she is joined by tenor Set Svanholm (whose name is spelled incorrectly in the CD notes). The two sing a truncated Love Duet from Tristan;  she also is heard in an abbreviated Senta's Ballad, and the Liebestod.  The CD is filled out with an 8-minute interview from the BBC "Desert Island Discs" program, in which she speaks engagingly of her admiration for Schwarzkopf, selecting as one of her DIDs Schwarzkopf's "O Mio Babbino Caro."  She also selected Duparc sung by Maggie Teyte, Chopin played by Dinu Lipatti, Jussi Bjoerling's "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem, Beethoven's Archduke Trio (Feuermann, Heifetz Rubinstein), Beecham's Midsummer Night's Dream Overture,  the Trio from Der Rosenkavalier and Grieg's Piano Concerto with Walter Gieseking.

Admirers of Flagstad surely will wish to have this CD for its historic interest. It is unfortunate that a full-priced CD would have a mediocre production - there is no excuse for CD notes with so major typos.  My recommendation for the finest modern recording of Four Last Songs would be RenČe Fleming's on RCA; she is in glorious voice, committed to the meaning of the text, and has the advantage of  incredibly sensitive orchestral accompaniment  from Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony.  The only debit for this recording is a slight over-prominence of the solo voice.

R.E.B. (Aug. 2000)