No. 1, Frühling
No. 2, September
No. 3, Beim Schlafengehen
No. 4, Im Abendrot
Capriccio, Op. 85, TrV 279 / Letzte Szene
In November 2003, David Bowie wrote an article for Vanity Fair, “Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie,” in which he revealed his 25 favorite albums. Nestled among the list was a choice that might have surprised a few readers: Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, sung by Austrian soprano Gundula Janowitz with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker. “Like that certain book, this is one album that I give to friends and acquaintances continually,” he wrote. “Janowitz’s performance of Strauss’ Four Last Songs has been described, rightly, as transcendental. It aches with love for a life that is quietly fading. I know of no other piece of music, nor any performance, which moves me quite like this.”
In 1973, when the album was recorded, Janowitz was in her vocal prime. Hers is a voice that is instantly recognizable: silvery, with a very quick vibrato and an ability to spin seemingly endless lines. It also might have been made for this music that almost liquefies the four poems (one by Joseph von Eichendorff and three by Hermann Hesse) into abstract music, taking on an almost instrumental purity and flexibility.
Now enjoying a well-deserved retirement after a career that regularly saw her performing with the greatest conductors of the day—Karajan, Karl Böhm, Carlos Kleiber, Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Kempe, and Otto Klemperer, to name just a few—Janowitz was honored by Gramophone magazine with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021. To mark that occasion, Deutsche Grammophon remastered this classic recording of Four Last Songs for Spatial Audio, adding the final scene from Strauss’ opera Capriccio, conducted by Böhm, as a generous, and appropriately late-Strauss, makeweight.
In her acceptance speech at the Gramophone Awards, Janowitz recalled recording Four Last Songs with her characteristic lack of fuss. “I arrived at the sessions and just sang them through twice,” she said. “And that was it!” Her long musical relationship with Karajan, whom she describes as the man who taught her what music was, meant that they spoke the same language when it came to performing. But recording sessions were occasions that she adored. “It demands a certain level of concentration, whether one is with an orchestra, choir, and soloists or simply alone with the pianist,” she said. “There is a certain moment just before the red recording light goes on and someone says, ‘Stand by.’ It’s that very special moment where you think, ‘The music is about to begin’...and then the red light goes on and you start singing the most wonderful music in the world. It’s unbelievably magical to be able to make music for other people.”
Written in 1948, right at the end of Richard Strauss’ life, the Four Last Songs are a glorious summation—and perhaps, they gently close a door on a musical language, resolutely Late Romantic, forever. Their mood is autumnal (not for nothing is the second song called “September”) and tinged with a sense of a life lived to its full. But they’re also the final outpouring of the composer’s love for the soprano voice (his wife, Pauline, had been a professional soprano), and few pieces soar as exquisitely toward the heavens as these four songs. Janowitz, who sang many of Strauss’ soprano roles—Ariadne, Arabella, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and the Capriccio Countess among them—gauges them to perfection, and Karajan’s control of the orchestra is supreme.
As the evening light fades in the final song, “Im Abendrot,” an old couple takes a walk after a lifetime together. They know that their lives will soon end, but the mood is not one of sadness or regret, but rather one filled with a gentle wonder at everything they’ve experienced and shared together. Two larks fly up into the sky in one of the most heavenly postludes of any orchestral song: “O vast, tranquil peace, so deep in the afterglow,” says the poet. Is it any wonder that David Bowie cherished this music, and this performance, like little else?