Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mercoledi Musicale

In 1948 the 84 year old Richard Strauss read the poem Im Abendrot (At Sunset) by Joseph von Eichendorff and in May of that year set it to music.  Shortly after he was given the complete poems of Hermann Hesse and set three of the poet's works: Frühling (Spring), September, and Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). With the exception of Frühling the poems deal with death perhaps something the composer was giving much thought to as his own life was drawing to a close.  But his settings were not those of the past: this was no heroic or romantic death but a philosophical sense of calm and acceptance - death as a natural end.

There is no indication that Strauss ever intended these songs to be cycle and he did not hear them performed in his lifetime - he was to die in September 1949.   Ernst Roth, his chief editor at Boosey & Hawkes who compiled them as a song cycle, gave them their title Vier Letzte Lider (The Four Last Songs) and arranged for their premiere in May 1950.  The great Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler sang them at the Royal Albert Hall.

There have been many performances and recordings of them since - probably as many as there are sopranos - and each has its champions.  My own favourite has always been a live 1951 recording from Stockholm of Sena Jurinac with Fritz Busch conducting the Stockholm Symphony - one of the first recordings ever made of the cycle.  It has its faults - the Stockholm musicians are not in the same league as many of the other orchestras that have recorded it.

Though the entire group has always touched me emotionally Im Abendrot has the ability - along with the remarkable violin passage in Frühling - to move me to tears.  I believe the late Margaret Price only made one commercial recording but fortunately her 1981 performance with the late Claudio Abbado and the Chicago Symphony was recorded.  The combination of these two remarkable and much loved artists with an orchestra at the top of its form make the tears flow. 

Im Abendrot
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
Ist dies etwa der Tod?
At Sunset
We have through sorrow and joy
gone hand in hand;
From our wanderings, let's now rest
in this quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow
as the sun goes down.
Two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the light air.

Come close, and let them fly.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let's not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the evening's glow!
How weary we are of wandering---
Is this perhaps death?
Joseph vonEichendorff (1788-1857)

January 29 -1886: Karl Benz patents the first successful gasoline-driven automobile.
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Anonymous said...

I love this cycle. Sang it once and always got carried away with the accompaniment.


Ur-spo said...

I've often said if I were to go deaf, what would I last like to hear? : Beim Schlafengehen.