Tim Ashley, Monday December 19, 2005
"Why make an arrangement of the Vier Letzte lieder?" James Ledger asks in the programme note for his chamber version of Strauss's final masterpiece. Ledger's arrangement is one of a pair, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall for Felicity Lott and the Nash Ensemble, its companion being a version by David Matthews of the closing scene from Capriccio. Given that Strauss is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest of all orchestral writers, the idea of tinkering with his music might strike some as brazen cheek. The Wigmore, however, has maintained a tradition of presenting chamber editions of works written for voices and orchestra; the two commissions were doubtless conceived as companion pieces to the now familiar versions of Mahler songs by Schoenberg and Reinbert de Leeuw.
Matthews's Capriccio is, in many respects, the more immediately Straussian of the two, preserving the sinuosity, the elegance and the horn-and woodwind-based opulence of the original. Ledger has the harder task: scaling down the Four Last Songs inevitably brings with it shifts of mood and emphasis. The thinner sound is perhaps best suited to September, with its conflicting images of desiccation and wetness. Elsewhere, Ledger's instrumentation can turn bleak where Strauss's orchestra consoles: the end of Im Abendrot sounds particularly disconsolate, with its bass line reduced to the growl of two cellos and a double bass.
Lott sang both with her usual aristocratic poise and dignity. Some may prefer a more sensual tone in Strauss, but her breath control, phrasing and ability to convey the meaning of the text without fracturing the line remain exemplary. The conductor was Bernard Haitink, exceptional in his understanding of the sadness that lurks behind the wit and charm of Capriccio's closing pages. The Four Last Songs, meanwhile, had a tremendous urgency, as if time itself were gradually seeping away.