Rescheduled from February last year, this interesting and experimental programming of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs has now arrived. Jonas Kaufmann, a supremely intelligent and gifted artist, has recorded Strauss songs with piano accompaniment where his ability to inflect and colour the text in an intimate context is remarkable, and in its lower registers his voice has a distinctly baritonal quality which assists the effect.
In ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’, he brought inner focus and a flair for textual expressivity to bear. Also evident was his skilful control of a wide dynamic range allying intense pianissimos with a burnished intensity at greater volumes. ‘Befreit’ stood out in this regard, although 'Freundliche Vision' was unremarkable, and ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ is a song that many baritones and some tenors sing often, John Henry Mackay’s poem written from the male perspective, here in Robert Heger’s somewhat workaday scoring; the with-piano version is more interesting.
In his Four Last Songs Strauss was in his element composing soaring and arching lines for the soprano voice. Despite his poised singing, Kaufmann illustrated that tenors will never supplant female voices. His slightly veiled and covered tonal quality sounded well in the lower parts, but aloft there was not the airy freedom that sopranos can muster. Instead these lines were delivered with a more intense and anguished quality that did not sit so well with Strauss’s orchestration, the voice not complementing the texture, and not persuasive enough. Under Jochen Rieder the BBC Symphony Orchestra delivered of its best – some super violin and horn solos. As an encore, Kaufmann offered a magisterial and almost dangerously slow rendition of ‘Morgen!’, Opus 27/4.
The BBCSO was also heard at its ebullient best in Korngold’s teenage Schauspiel Ouvertüre, full of bright and infectious panache from its subdued opening to the swirling and propulsive middle section. It was followed by a reflective reading of the second Interlude from Strauss’s rarely performed Intermezzo, translated more or less wholesale from the opera. There was also an exceptionally fine performance of Elgar’s In the South, Rieder displaying a mastery of the style and allowing the many felicities their due prominence whilst maintaining tension. Mention must be made of Norbert Blume’s haunting viola solo in the moonlit episode.