Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2001 and the recording is still available. Ian Lace passed away in 2021.
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder
Arabella, Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio: excerpts
Lisa Della Casa (soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
Decca 467 118-2 
Lisa della Casa was born near Bern in 1919. In her heyday, she sang with the most radiant tone and beautiful musicianly phrasing. Initially, she concentrated on lyric soprano roles (Gilda, Pamina, Sophie). Then, gradually, she extended her repertoire to include spinto roles but she was always careful never to strain the voice. Although it was extremely powerful (as evinced in her high notes in the Arabella excerpts on this album). The two composers who best suited her voice and temperament were Mozart and Richard Strauss.
In the Four Last Songs recorded here della Casa is accompanied by that celebrated Strauss interpreter, Karl Böhm. This must be considered an authentic reading because the four songs are performed in the order that Richard Strauss preferred – i.e. ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (Time to Sleep); ‘September’; ‘Frühling’ (Spring); and ‘Im Abendrot’
Furthermore, and it will come as a surprise to some, Böhm eschews the broad tempi and quite arbitrary ritardandos that became the fashion, that instilled the work with exaggerated solemnity and pathos because it was thought that that was the appropriate manner for a great ‘swan song’. Instead, Lisa della Casa imbues these glorious songs with a fresh youthful charm devoid of cloying sentimentality. Here the mood is conciliatory, bright and spiritualised. Böhm accompanies her gloriously; that sublime violin solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ has rarely sounded so haunting and those pp horn figures that close each movement are beautifully refined and distanced perfectly. The sinuous lines of ‘September’, with the voice floating angelically above, are also contoured and shaded to perfection.
The excerpts from Arabella are heart-warming too. The role gives della Casa the opportunity to display a range of emotions. First we hear the aria leading to the duet with her sister Zdenka (ravishingly sung by Hilde Gueden) in which Arabella sings wistfully ‘he’s not the right man for me’ but that if there is a right man for her there will be no doubt about it. Della Casa and Gueden are quite exquisite. Exquisite too is the haunting and passionate climax of the following duet for Arabella and Mandryka (an oaken Paul Schoeffler) when they acknowledge their love. The third excerpt is the closing scene in which, after some tribulation Mandryka (this time a slightly lighter voiced, Alfred Poell) and Arabella’s relationship is cemented. Another enchanting moment this, with Strauss at his most sensuously romantic.
When Lisa della Casa appeared as Ariadne in 1949 some critics expressed reservation about such a young singer daring to take on a role that could be as demanding as any in the Wagnerian soprano repertoire. But she adapted to the role and freed the character of the heroics that had generally burdened it. As can be heard here she sings ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ (And it has a name: the realm of death), like some young innocent girl surrendering herself with an untroubled spirituality to the dark god Hermes. It is interesting to hear the lowest register of the voice early on as she utters the dread name of the god.
The concluding excerpt is from Richard Strauss’s last opera Capriccio. Della Casa shows off her distinguished aristocratic voice as the Countess who is wooed by a poet and a composer. She sings the composition that is their joint collaboration. She must choose between words or music. She finally decides that both words are equally important – but as for the men; well that is left open as she coquettishly swishes her fan at her reflection in her mirror.
For every Richard Strauss fan this CD is an absolute must.
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