Four Last Songs at the Prom

If April is the cruellest month (and I could never see why it should be), September, signalling the decline of summer and the approach of autumn, is surely the saddest.  So Strauss’s Four Last Songs at the BBC Prom on 4 September, almost always moving, were intensely so on this occasion, not just because of the deeply emotional singing of the Finnish soprano Karita Mattila but especially because of the glorious, deeply-felt playing of the Berlin Philharmonic under their principal conductor, Liverpudlian Simon Rattle.  I listened to it first live on BBC Radio 3 and was initially uncertain about what seemed perhaps an excessive theatricality in Mattila’s singing.  I had taped it, and played it over a couple of times immediately afterwards. Each time it seemed more genuine and more intense.

A couple of hours later, the whole Prom was broadcast on BBC television, and now the experience of the Strauss songs was transformed by the sight as well as the sound of Mattila, Rattle and the marvellous orchestra.  What on radio had at first sounded suspiciously theatrical could now be heard as something deeply spiritual.  As the last glorious notes of the last of the four songs, “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset), almost literally died away, the intense hush before the start of the applause seemed to go on for ever, as if to break the spell by the slightest sound would have been unthinkable.  The applause, when it came, was rapturous – almost as emotional as at the end of the Mahler First Symphony the previous evening, also performed by Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.  Karita Mattila, almost overcome by her thunderous reception as well, I suspect, as by spiritual exhaustion from singing this extraordinary music, hugged Simon Rattle and the leader of the orchestra again and again, half laughing and half crying, repeatedly miming her homage to the orchestra and her acknowledgement of the packed audience, as the applause rolled on and on.

I don’t think this was necessarily one of the great performances of Strauss’s valedictory.  The great sopranos of the age have almost all recorded it and many of the resulting disks are sublime.  But last night’s occasion at the Albert Hall, the work of a great German composer performed by a German orchestra, perhaps the greatest on the planet, under an outstanding British conductor and with a fine Finnish soprano, one day after the anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Hitler’s Germany, had a special resonance which seemed to be echoed in the emotional response of the enormous audience and the equally emotional reaction of the performers to it.  And it was September, title and theme of the second of the four songs.

The Vier letzte Lieder, Strauss’s last finished work, were composed in 1948 when the composer was 84, only three years after the end of the war which had imposed such a tempestuous and tragic experience on the whole German people[1], including not least on Richard Strauss himself. Strauss did not live to hear the world premiere, performed in London at this very same Royal Albert Hall, home of the Proms, on 22 May 1950 by the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the celebrated and to some people infamous German conductor.   Furtwängler’s tortured relations with Hitler and the Nazis had forced him to take refuge in Switzerland almost at the end of the war, only five years before the London premiere of the Four Last Songs.  There is a moving account of the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s attitude to the Nazis here.   History has, I think, fully acquitted him.

The BBC Proms website describes the Four Last Songs as “Strauss’s opulently nostalgic reflections on life’s last days”, but I don’t think that quite gets it.  The music is deeply sad, but also philosophical about the inevitable approach of death, and the last bars of the orchestral ending of the last song seem to signal, as clearly as only music can, peaceful acceptance, not nostalgia, not regret, no hint of any rage against the dying of the light.  In 1948, moreover,  ‘peace’ could not have referred only to the peace of death.  Rattle and this sensational band caught this perfectly.  I used to suspect that you needed to be over 65 truly to appreciate the Four Last Songs: better still, over 75.  But Rattle is a mere youthful 55, so I must be wrong.  His eight years (so far) conducting the Berliners have evidently welded them all together into a single organism and that must make up for his extreme youth.  All Brits should be proud that the members of this iconic orchestra  chose one of our own fellow-countrymen to lead them through good days and occasionally bad for the better part of a decade.  To hear a great British maestro conduct a great German orchestra with a splendid Finnish soprano in a German composer’s final masterpiece with so many tragic historical undertones was indeed a memorable experience.

[1] As well as on a few million others, of course.


2 Responses

  1. Michael Hornsby says:

    It was indeed a most moving performance, from a singer I’d not heard before. I missed it last night, but, galvanised by your blog, was able to catch up on iPlayer today. I shall always have a strong sentimental affection for the version with Lucia Popp and Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, an EMI recording dating from the early 1980s, a CD that has travelled with me around the world and was my first proper exposure to this ethereal song cycle. But last night’s came close. As you say, the profound silence after the last wistful larksong trills faded in the gloaming said as much about the impact on the audience as the subsequent ecstatic applause. You mention Furtwaengler’s (I haven’t yet discovered how to do umlauts on my new Mac!) “tortured relations with Hitler and the Nazis”. Strauss’s relations were, of course, no less tormented, many accusing him at worst of collaboration and at best of toadying to the Nazis, particularly because of his acceptance of the position of president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau. One of his critics, Arturo Toscanini, said: “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again”. In fact, I think there is plenty of evidence that he had nothing but contempt for the Nazis and all they represented. His toadying, if such it was, was motivated by his desire to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and Jewish grandchildren from persecution, in which he was largely successful. Still, he may well have been a rather prickly character and inclined to stand on his dignity. The story goes that he greeted the young American officer who came to his house in Garmisch at the end of the war with the words: “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome”, which sounds a bit like “Do you know who you are talking to, young man?” Fortunately, the young man was a music-lover and did.

    Brian writes: Michael, many thanks for this. Was it Furtwängler or was it Richard Strauss who was captured on film being obliged to shake hands publicly with Josef Goebbels and immediately afterwards taking out his handkerchief and wiping his hand on it?

  2. Ollie Barder says:

    I listened to the Prom on the radio home and it was a wonderful performance of the Four last Songs. Mostly I think down to the depth of Karita Mattila’s voice. As she’s by no means a typical screechy soprano and much of late romantic vocal composition (including Strauss) requires a broader tessitura on the part of the singer, something Mattila is wonderfully equipped for.
    Personally, whilst I do adore the Four last Songs (as well as most late romantic lieder), I am somewhat miffed that the Proms won’t be performing Tod und Verklärung this year.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Ollie. I’m glad that you and others with more musical expertise than me also thought highly of this performance. Reviewing the two Simon Rattle Proms in the Guardian, Erica Jeal wrote:

    Rattle took Strauss’s Four Last Songs so broadly that the soprano Karita Mattila was pushed to the limits of her lungs, and even in her most radiant moments seemed always to be holding something back.

    I can only say that it didn’t sound to me at all like that; and if by ‘broadly’ Ms Jeal meant ‘slowly’ (in which case why didn’t she say so?), I didn’t think the pace was particularly slow — nor that Mattila seemed to be holding anything back. Moreover, if she had been pushed to the limit of her lungs, I’m not entirely clear how she could also have been holding anything back. Perhaps ‘boadly’ meant ‘loudly’, but I didn’t find any problem with the balance between the orchestra and the voice. These songs do indeed call for an extended range in the singer, and Mattila certainly has that.

    Pity about Tod und Verklärung, I agree, but I suppose we can’t have everything every Proms season.