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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 20, No. 5

Listening Suggestions: Love Transfigured

by René François Auclair / February 1, 2015

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On Valentine’s Day, let’s get away from mushy romance and go right to the heart of true feelings. The greatest composers have grasped hold of love and turned it into timeless music. Here are some listening suggestions for this lovers’ feast day.

Four Last Songs
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Jessye Norman, soprano. Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra. Kurt Masur. Decca. 1983. 475 8507. 46 min 5 s.

A year before his death, Strauss completed his Vier letzte Lieder, which has been considered his masterpiece ever since. Strauss saw himself in these four ultimate poems; he set their themes linking nature, love and death to a music of great expressionistic beauty. In it, he also pays tribute to his wife, soprano Pauline Ahna, who remained faithfully at his side for more than a half century. She outlived him by only a few months, overcome with grief as she was.

Several great voices have recorded reference versions: Schwarzkopf (1966), Janowitz (1974), Jessye Norman (1983), Felicity Lott (1992), Renée Fleming, and most recently Anna Netrebko. Many music lovers will agree that Jessye Norman’s version comes highly recommended, with a warm, expressive and powerful voice, backed by a deep-breathed orchestra. Kurt Masur takes the time to lead us masterfully into bliss. A peak of perfection.

Gustav Mahler (1865-1911)
Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Bernard Haitink. Philips.

For Mahler, music is a declaration of love to the universe; it must be embraced, and nothing less. It is not surprising then that such a romantic composer had a most passionate relationship with Alma Schindler Mahler, for whom his affection was boundless. This love served as inspiration for many of his symphonic pages.

In 1995, Philips released a compilation of these symphonies’ most beautiful slow movements, titled Adagietto, Music for Love. This sumptuous album included a facsimile of some of Gustav’s and Alma’s letters. Unfortunately this record is no longer available, but we can still get the Haitink set, which remains a stylish reference. The Dutch conductor proposes a very lyrical Mahler with a romantic intensity that differs fundamentally from other versions.

Maria Callas (1923-1977)
Warner Classics. 2014. 0825646339945. 77 min 56 s.

This diva had a turbulent love life worthy of the biggest Hollywood stars. After her ill-fated career, she died at only 53, leaving behind many recordings, which Warner recently remastered. A year’s work at Abbey Road Studios yielded stunning results. Callas’s voice reaches us as never before: far from perfect, but unique and astonishing, it can still melt hearts of stone. She alone sings about love this way: desperate, whole, as if the world had to suffer along with her. Brava!

Violin Sonatas
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Augustin Dumay and Louis Lortie. Onyx. 2014. 4133. 77 min.

Brahms always had great affection for Clara Schumann, fourteen years his senior. When her husband Robert Schumann died, their relationship intensified, but was never fully realized. However, Brahms stayed in touch with the great musician all his life. From time to time he sent her his compositions and, unbeknownst to her, some revenues from his commissioned works. They lived far apart for a long time but remained forever bound by the love of music. Brahms, the great romantic and mad lover, reveals himself as never before through these violin sonatas, which are probably the most accomplished of the entire 19th century repertoire. Augustin Dumay’s interpretation is highly sensitive, supported by a humble and reserved Lortie. Admirable.

Wagner en Suisse
Richard Wagner (1813-1893)
Orchestre Symphonique Bienne. Thomas Rösner. Atma Classique. 2012. ACD2 2580. 71 min 21s.

On the morning of December 25, 1870, Wagner offered Cosima the most beautiful musical birthday gift of the entire romantic repertoire, the Siegfried Idyll (original title: Tribschener Idyll, with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise), performed by 13 musicians in the interior staircase of the villa. The work is a rather beautiful evocation of marital bliss, and the writing is refined and expressive. This disc also includes a video clip of the first ever restaging of the original performance in the very same place where Cosima was roused from her sleep, the villa at Tribschen, Lucerne, which is now the Richard Wagner Museum.

Transfigured Night op. 4
Arnold SchoenberG (1874-1951)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. DG. 1990. 429233-2. 69 min 27s.

Based on a poem by Richard Dehmel (1863-1920), Verklärte Nacht is a strange love story in music, an opera without words, whose originality ties it to early 20th century German Expressionism. This is Schoenberg’s best-known and most approachable work. The young composer, who at the time was in love with Zemlinsky’s sister, weaved into this work an intense, troubling musical polyphony, whose images come to us like a silent film onto a screen. Schoenberg later reworked it for string orchestra. Karajan (DG.1974) gives it an impressive dramatic momentum with an elusive, almost unreal acoustic. However, Orpheus, an ensemble that performs without a conductor, seems fully invested in the work. The result is a vibrant reading in which each group of instruments is beautifully restored by the high-quality recording technique.

Translation: Eric Legault

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