Measure by Measure

Crossing Over

Kiri Te Kanawa and Richard Strauss’s final songs

By Sudip Bose | September 28, 2017

A few weeks ago, the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa announced—somewhat quietly and after the fact, given that her final performance took place last October—that she would no longer sing in public. Thus ended one of the most compelling, successful, and enduring careers in music, begun nearly a half century ago, when Te Kanawa appeared as the Countess Almaviva in a Santa Fe Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. She reprised the role at London’s Covent Garden—the year was 1971—and from there, her ascent into the stratosphere was swift. With a voice both beautiful and pure, lyrical and luxuriant, Te Kanawa appeared at all the great opera houses of the world. From London to New York, Vienna to Paris, Milan to Chicago—and in the recording studio, too—she left her mark on a wide variety of roles. She has had tremendous crossover appeal, as well, something she has been all too happy to embrace, as comfortable singing an anthem for the Rugby World Cup as she was playing Desdemona at the Met.

She excelled in Puccini (Tosca, Manon Lescaut, La Bohème), Verdi (Otello, Simon Boccanegra, La Traviata), and Samuel Barber (her 2009 Vanessa in Los Angeles was to be her valedictory operatic role, yet she came back the following year for Der Rosenkavalier in Cologne). She’ll forever be associated, however, with two composers in particular: Mozart and Richard Strauss. In The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, she was very nearly peerless, yet it’s the 1974 recording of Mozart’s Mass in C minor, with Raymond Leppard conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra, that I want to recommend here. Te Kanawa sings the second soprano part with impeccable taste and refinement. Listen especially to how she shapes the long, arcing lines of her Laudamus te, her tone creamy in the lower notes and bell-like in the upper register. Indeed, she brought these same qualities to all of her Mozart roles, and to the memorable heroines she portrayed in the operas of Strauss.

Last weekend, I was talking to Matthew Guilford, bass trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra, who recalled a production of Strauss’s Capriccio, starring Te Kanawa, that he had performed in, when he was a member of the San Francisco Opera orchestra. This would have been around 1990, toward the end of Te Kanawa’s operatic prime, and yet, Guilford remembered many fine qualities, mainly the soprano’s elegant, golden-hued voice, which had seemed to him perfect for that role. Those performances were contemporaneous with one of Te Kanawa’s most important Strauss recordings: her collaboration with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic on the Four Last Songs.

Strauss composed those exquisite orchestral songs in 1948, at the age of 84—a year before he died. Set to poems by Joseph von Eichendorff and Hermann Hesse, the pieces are largely about weariness and resignation, and the placid acceptance of death. They require, I think, a voice tinged with wisdom and experience, not one in the full bloom of youth. And so, if Te Kanawa’s instrument here lacks a touch of the sprightliness from her earlier days, so much the better. In Frühling (Spring), following the roiling, uneasy orchestral introduction, she sounds wonderfully restrained and distant, before opening up and blooming as she sings of trees and azure breezes, springtime scents and birdsong. Her sound in September is bright and controlled at first, but subtly changes as the song unfolds. It’s as if we can sense, mid-phrase, her recognition of the fading colors of summer—a feeling not exactly of sadness, but of wistfulness. Autumnal light informs every languorous phrase of Im Abendrot (At Gloaming), the soprano’s tone color changing, even within the span of a single note, from chill to warmth. Es dunkelt schon die Luft, she sings. (Already the air grows dark.) And so, Te Kanawa leads us into a realm of profound calm, before settling upon the haunting and elliptical final line, Ist dies etwa der Tod? (Is this perhaps death?) Only when we hear the moment of transfiguration and the trills of the flutes depicting the sound of larks in the hazy darkness—only then is the harmonic uncertainty resolved.

Im Abendrot concludes the cycle, but let me go backward to the third song, Beim Schlafengehen (When Going to Sleep), for this is the piece I find most bewitching and comforting, too. Hesse’s text and Strauss’s music describe the exhausted soul that wants only to leave the terrestrial world and take its rest amid the “magic circle of night”:

Now that day has tired me,
my spirits long for
starry night kindly
to enfold them, like a tired child.

Gundula Janowitz, Lisa Della Casa, Jessye Norman, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and many others have recorded memorable, moving accounts of this song and this cycle, yet it’s Te Kanawa’s voice, with its dark colors and drowsy distance—and above all, its sheer beauty—that seems most appealing to me now. (I should add that Solti and the opulent Vienna Philharmonic play no small part in my enjoyment.) Ironically, my favorite moment in Beim Schlafengehen occurs when the soprano has nothing at all to sing—it’s the violin solo in the middle of the song, a heavenly lullaby, one of the sweetest, most tranquil melodies ever written. Yet listen to how Te Kanawa enters at the conclusion of this solo, with such delicacy and finesse, as if emerging from the whispered last note of the violin line, in tandem for the briefest moment before separating, effortlessly rising once more, the voice reaching its full radiance on the words Seele (soul), freien (free), and Flügen (flight), like a bird soaring toward the firmament at sunset.

Restaurant chefs often ask each other to name the one dish they’d like for their final meal. I’m not sure what I’d want to eat, but when the eternal night eventually approaches, this is the music—and especially the voice—that I think I’d want to hear.

Listen to Kiri Te Kanawa, along with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, perform Beim Schlafengehen from the Four Last Songs, and watch this illuminating extract from a rehearsal, as Solti and Te Kanawa work on September:

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