strauss lieder choir rondeau

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Letzte Lieder
Songs arranged for mixed choir a cappella by Clytus Gottwald and Franz Zimnol
Helmut Winkel (violin)
KammerChor Saarbrücken/Georg Grün
rec. 2020/22 Großer Sendesaal of the Funkhaus Halberg Saarbrücken
Rondeau Production ROP6241 [58]

In the spirit of mild curiosity I requested this disc of Richard Strauss songs arranged for a cappella choir.  Somehow I thought the beautiful Vier letzte Lieder might at least be “interesting”, probably well-sung but ultimately little more than an “attractive” side-note to this desert-island-worthy work.  If nothing else this teaches/reminds me of the danger of preconceptions.  This disc, the arrangements, the singing and interpretations are simply glorious – and finely recorded to boot.  Clearly if the idea of altering a single note of any of Strauss’ solo songs is an anathema to you look away now.  But if you have the slightest, tiniest sliver of interest, do seek out any of the songs on the disc but especially the overwhelmingly moving Four Last Songs.

 The KammerChor Saarbrücken was founded in 1990 by conductor Georg Grün who directs this performance.  They have a singing strength around 45-50 voices which allows these complex 16-part arrangements to achieve a remarkable sonority and tonal richness.  Indeed a striking feature of this entire programme is the impressive blend across the entire vocal group allied to complete technical security and expressive freedom.  Of course the character of any song is changed by going from an individual to a collective interpretation but I find the effect to be transformative with different aspects of these beautiful works revealed and emphasised.  In part this is also due to the highly skilled work of the two musicians responsible for the arrangements.  The bulk of these – twelve of the seventeen tracks – are by the well-known and highly regarded Clytus Gottwald.  Gottwald died on January 18th this year at the mighty age of ninety seven so aside from any intrinsic merit this disc has, it also functions as a worthy memorial to a great composer, musician and arranger.  Gottwald became best known for his transcriptions of Romantic and Modernist works with often startling results.  There are several discs that celebrate his particular talent – I have enjoyed the fresh-voiced Rudolfus Choir’s survey under Ralph Allwood on Signum very much with repertoire ranging from Ravel and Debussy to Mahler, Webern and Berg.

According to the liner, in these current Strauss arrangements Gottwald has allowed himself a degree of creative freedom rather than slavish transcription to ensure that these songs are wholly successful as a capella works in their own right.  Strauss’ contribution to the genre of unaccompanied choir is relatively small but extremely demanding with the Deutsche Motette Op.62 and the Zwei Gesänge op.34 the key works.  Gottwald’s genius is to take these solo songs and transform them into works that really do sound as if they had always existed as a kind of Straussian part-songs.  The original solo songs for voice and piano are a part of Strauss’ output that I am unfamiliar with so the degree and manner of the subtle alterations rather elude me but the results to my innocent ear are without exception beautiful, convincing and effective.  Clearly Gottwald has judiciously chosen those songs that are best suited to this approach with the original vocal line integrated into and across the singing group.  At no point are these simple transcriptions where an original solo line is placed over an arrangement of the accompaniment for voices.  Try the gently rapturous An die Nacht Op.68 No.1 [track 6] for an example of just how effective this approach is.  A consequence of this integration of all the musical lines is apparent across the entire disc – the listener gets a far clearer sense of Strauss’ extraordinary handling of harmony and how the vocal line is a crucial part of this.  In the usual solo version the ear is naturally led by the solo line but here there is a clear sense of equality across the music.

Of course none of Gottwald’s skill would count for anything if these songs were not performed with the quite remarkable skill of the KammerChor Saarbrücken.  The original songs were exceptionally demanding so in effect you need to have a choir where each individual singer has the technical ability to perform these works effortlessly.  Yet at the same time the demands of ensemble singing require a unity and awareness of blend and balance, of primary and secondary material that would be simply too much for many a good choir.  Fortunately the KammerChor Saarbrücken is not good – they are superb.  They sound so technically at ease with this music that they are instead fully able to focus on the expressive and engaging interpretations which conductor Georg Grün has fashioned.  There is an ideal flexibility and emotional identification with these songs that makes for a deeply moving experience.  I suppose it could be argued that nearly an hour of Strauss at his most rapturous is potentially too much of a good thing but I have to say that I have been running this disc on repeat over several days since I first heard the opening bars and my admiration and enjoyment continues to grow.

And this is before I mention – for me – the “main event” of the Vier letzte Lieder Op.150.  Both this work and the stunning Morgen Op.24 No.4 which opens the disc are arranged by Franz Zimnol – a name previously unknown to me.  Zimnol is in fact a member of this choir – one of the basses – and the liner explains that these Strauss arrangements were developed with and for this choir and having been inspired by the work of Clytus Gottwald.  As an aside the liner lists three basses with the surname Zimnol – I wonder if there is something of a mini-singing-dynasty in the choir!  But these are not slavish imitations of Gottwald’s style, Zimnol, working alongside Grün, has developed his own arranging style.  The most instant and immediate ‘difference’ is Zimnol’s inclusion of a solo violin as, in the words of the liner, “the seventeenth voice”.  There is a musical logic given that both Morgen and the Vier letze Lieder include in the original versions important solo violin lines.  But its use here goes way beyond simply leaving that part of the originals untouched.  Zimnol has created a new musical character who entwines with the vocal lines, supports them, elaborates themes or simply ecstatically arabesques around and above the choral group.  Of course key moments in the cycle – the great horn melody in September or the violin solo in Beim Schlaffengehen and the late larks that close Im Abendrot – are given to the solo violin with heart-stopping effect.  Well that is certainly the effect as they are played here by Helmut Winkel.  Given how well Winkel plays, it is rather impressive to read that he is also a former member of the KammerChor Saarbrücken.  Possibly Winkel does not have the very sweetest tone but in exchange he does play very securely and with the understanding of the vocal phrasing that is absolutely key to this work.  The well-judged balance of the recording places him ideally within the vocal group too so his lines are always audible but never dominating.

Zimnol’s approach to these arrangements is subtly different from Gottwald’s.  He stays closer to the original songs but finds ways to express the complex orchestral accompaniments in vocally effective ways.  Again, I have to say I find all of his solutions profoundly convincing.  Of course the fundamental character of these songs has changed.  The originals have been sung and recorded by every great soprano of the last seventy years all of whom have brought their individual characters and vocal qualities to the work.  So a version by forty singers cannot have the personal, indeed intimate, revelations of an individual’s vision.  But the gain is – as with the Gottwald arrangements – a far greater sense of musical integration.  Strauss famously orchestrated each of the songs for a different instrumental combination.  Here, the unity of the choir leads the ear often away from the ravishing top-line melody and integrates it into the totality of the each song.  Even during the “orchestral” interludes Zinmol has allocated texts to the vocal parts which again blurs the listener’s perception of solo and accompaniment.  Again, I cannot praise the skill of the singing here enough; remember you need a soprano line where each singer is able to sing these hugely demanding parts as if they were soloists.  But if the sopranos have to scale the literal heights then the basses are plunging to the very lowest depths of a singer’s range which they again do with total security and impressive weight.

Alongside all these many and noteworthy technical accomplishments I have to say that I found Georg Grün’s interpretation of this cycle to be deeply moving and effective as well.  Curiously, the impression I had initially listening in isolation was that this was a quite ‘slow’ version – and none the worse for that.  However, direct comparison with classic performances from Schwarkopf to Janowitz or Norman finds that by timings alone they are fairly ‘standard’.  So this satisfying sense of emotional and expressive weight must come from the actual performances and the arrangement.

Clearly this disc has impressed and indeed moved me greatly.  I do not suggest for a second that these performances should in any way supplant the originals but as an alternative vision of this much-loved music this is little short of revelatory.  The liner mentions that these editions have been published by Universal Edition Wien but the simple truth is that they will remain beyond the abilities of all but a handful of the very finest choirs in the world – to which the KammerChor Saarbrücken under Georg Grün clearly belong.  The engineering and production of this CD – recorded in ‘standard’ format – is every bit as fine as the performing.  The liner includes all texts in original German and English translation with brief but useful information about the music, the arrangers and the performers.  All in all I cannot fault this release in any respect and it is a disc I expect to include in my choices of records of the year come next December.

Nick Barnard

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Arr. Franz Zimnol (b.1963)
Morgen Op.27 No.4 (1894)
Vier letzte Lieder Op.150 (1948)
Arr. Clytus Gottwald (1925-2023)
An die Nacht Op.68 No.1 (1918)
Ich wollt ein Sträßlein binden Op.68 No.2 (1918)
Die Nacht Op.10 No.3 (1885)
Die Zeitlose Op.10 No.7 (1885)
Allerseelen Op.10 No.8 (1885)
Nachtgang Op.29 No.3 (1895)
Ich trage meine Minne Op.29 No.3 (1895)
Madrigal Op.15 No.1 (1886)
Heimkehr Op.15 No.5 (1886)
Wie solten wir geheim sie halten Op.19 No.4 (1888)
Ich schwebe Op.48 No.2 (1900)
Winterweihe Op.48 No.4 (1900)