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Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’

Rachel Willis-Sørenson Sings with the MSO

Sep. 27, 2016
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Among my favorite music in the world is Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder) by Richard Strauss, composed in 1948, a year before the composer’s death. He never heard them performed with orchestra. I have heard the set in concert at least 10 times over the decades with various soprano soloists and probably every recording ever made. A young singer, Rachel Willis-Sørenson, sang the set with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last Saturday evening. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a vocal instrument more suited to this music. 

I heard that Willis-Sørenson had never performed these songs with orchestra before last weekend. She was careful in performance but fully committed. The rich, darkish sound of her voice sailed through the extremely long phrases. From bottom to top, her sound was lustrous and thrilling. The week before, we heard her in a wonderful performance as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. I knew her Four Last Songs would be good, but I didn’t expect the revelatory performance she gave. I would like to hear her in the Songs again when she gains a bit more freedom with them.

Frank Almond’s gorgeous violin solo in the third song, played with his signature shining lyricism, was an additional artful pleasure. Edo de Waart was undoubtedly instrumental in finding and hiring Willis-Sørenson. He conducted the songs with a great sense of structure and sympathy for the voice. He brought vividness and contrasts to Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a concert favorite. The orchestra responded with colorful, precise playing.

Veteran artist Emmanuel Ax is one of the world’s greatest pianists. His rendition of Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms was brilliant, masterful and poetic. Ax’s technique is flawless, but rather than being an end in itself, it always serves the intent of the music. He’s a musician’s musician, and hearing him in combination with De Waart’s clear-eyed take on Brahms gave a fresh take on this concerto. Principal cellist Susan Babini was featured in a heartfelt solo in the third movement. Ax invited Babini to join him in an elegant, poignant encore, playing the first of Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces.

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