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TwoPianists releases a comprehensive collection of Richard Strauss’ vocal music

Cover of the recording being discussed
from Amazon.com

Richard Strauss was born on June 11, 1864. This past June 10, the day before his 150th birthday, TwoPianists Records released a nine-CD box entitled Richard Strauss: Complete Works for Voice and Piano: 1870–1948. This is probably the most comprehensive collection of those vocal compositions composed with piano accompaniment. The inclusion of those dates in the title should testify to just how comprehensive this is. The very first track of the first CD is a Christmas carol on a text by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (“Weihnachtslied”) composed in December of 1870, meaning it was composed for the Christmas that Strauss celebrated as a six-year-old. At the other extreme, the very last track is “Malven” (mallow plants), a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe composed on November 23, 1948, after Strauss had completed the work he called Four Last Songs. (“Malven” did not receive its premiere performance, sung by Kiri Te Kanawa accompanied by Martin Katz, until January of 1985 after its discovery in September of 1984.)

At the very least, this is a significant recording simply for having collected the entire corpus under one roof, so to speak. While there is rarely a paucity of vocal recitalists who include Strauss’ songs in their repertoire, I have to say that, personally, I have never encountered an all-Strauss program (as I have, for example, with the songs of Franz Schubert or Strauss’ contemporary, Hugo Wolf). Furthermore, my own experiences have led me to believe that most singers tend to cherry-pick the same selections. While I have never tired of any of them, I have always wondered what else there was that was being ignored.

While I would not recommend “binge listening” to this repertoire, I think it is important to observe that there is a consistency of quality across the entire collection. There is also a voracious appetite for poetry, providing me with encounters with German poets whose names were entirely new to me, regardless of the period during which they wrote. There was also one entirely surprise encounter with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Strauss’ Opus 38 is a collection of piano interludes intended to be played between the sections of Tennyson’s extended narrative poem “Enoch Arden.” In this collection the poem is narrated in German by Brigitte Fassbaender with Wolfram Rieger providing the interludes; but the piano music would fit just as comfortably into an English recitation.

The oddest composition in the set is probably the Opus 66 song cycle Krämerspiegel. There is no good translation for the title. The twelve songs in the collection are set to texts (which can probably be called poems) by the Berlin literary critic Alfred Kerr. The words abound with sharp ridicule, although much of the text will probably strike contemporary readers as hopelessly dated. Nevertheless, those readers will still quickly pick up on the references to Strauss’ own work, most of which are reinforced by Strauss reminding the listener with self-quotation. (There are also several late songs, none of which were published in his lifetime, in which he looks back on the music of other composers.)

Most important is that the production of this album involved gathering together a rather impressive collection of performers:

  • Sopranos: Anja-Nina Bahmann, Christiane Libor, Juliane Banse, Michelle Breedt
  • Mezzo: Brigitte Fassbaender
  • Alto: Anke Vondung
  • Tenors: Brenden Patrick Gunnell, Christian Elsner, Jeongkon Choi, Lucian Krasznec, Martin Mitterrutzner
  • Baritones: Andreas Mattersberger, Manuel Walser, Markus Eiche
  • Pianists: Burkhard Kehring, Christoph Berner, Malcolm Martineau, Nina Schumann, Wolfram Rieger

There are also three songs with an obbligato instrument part, the most interesting of which is probably “Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland” (the three wise men from the Orient), which requires a trumpet solo, played by Eduard Schonach on this recording.

Given the impressive level of effort that went into the performances recorded for this project, it is still worth noting that the 196 pages of the accompanying booklet could have been better organized. I can appreciate that each of the individual artists appreciated their respected biographical statements, but that does not leave much room for Strauss himself. Also, while it is useful to have all the tracks arranged in chronological order, the formatting of the track listings is far from conducive when it comes to finding a particular song. In a similar vein the lack of well-placed spacing makes it difficult for the reader to recognize how Tennyson organized “Enoch Arden” into distinct sections to structure his narrative.

Those who like to find what they are looking for relatively efficiently may consider going the digital download route for this collection. The download provided by ClassicsOnline includes a PDF file of the entire booklet with all text content available for search. In addition, the ClassicsOnline page provides titles for each of the songs collected under an opus number. This is helpful for anyone who may have forgotten the opus number for Mädchenblumen (which is Opus 22)!

Nevertheless, what matters most in this collection is the music itself; and it is hard to fault any of the performances across this corpus of epic proportions.