By Jonathan Blumhofer
Soprano Ruby Hughes’ salbum is fine, well played, sung, and programmed; baritone Christoph Prégardien delivers vocal works by Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Max Reger with warmth; soprano Diana Damrau is in her glorious prime singing the songs of Strauss.
Where to begin with soprano Ruby Hughes’s new album, Clytemnestra?
There’s the title track, a 24-minute-long song cycle by the Welsh composer Rhian Samuel. Essentially a miniature opera, Clytemnestra runs a full expressive range in its study of the motivations behind the actions of Aeschylus’s oft-presumed villain. There’s restless violence (in the opening “The Chain of Flame”), desolation (in “Lament for His Absence”), controlled fury (in “Agamemnon’s Return”), and some combination of the above in the three concluding vocal movements.
Throughout, Samuel’s writing is visceral, energetic, and full of striking touches (like the bass guitar that turns up in “The Deed”). Her vocal writing is bracingly agile but never unnecessarily virtuosic: the text always speaks clearly.
Surely, part of the reason for this owes to Hughes’s terrific account of the solo part. She’s in complete command, technically and expressively, whether singing from the depths of the “Lament” or nimbly dancing through the unsettled “Defiance” and concluding “Dirge.”
Jac van Steen leads the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a vivid accompaniment that always provides Hughes the space she needs to project while not holding back from Samuel’s climactic outbursts. It’s a riveting piece and a fine performance.
Much the same can be said of the album’s filler: a rare recording of Alban Berg’s gorgeous Altenberg-Lieder and a traversal of Gustav Mahler’s more familiar Rückert-Lieder.
In both, Hughes – whose pure tone, even projection across all registers, and excellent diction recalls the exceptional Margaret Price in her prime – sounds glorious.
Van Steen and his forces ably draw out the inventive colors and lush lyricism of the Berg while also providing a particularly tender take of Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”
A fine album, then: well played, sung, and programmed.
Another strong Rückert-Lieder turns up in baritone Christoph Prégardien’s new disc of vocal works by Mahler, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Max Reger with the Kammerorchester Basel and conductor Winfried Toll.
This Rückert is, like Hughes’s above, fluent, clear, and full of charm: “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” burbles freshly, “Um Mitternacht” is potently shaped, and there’s a wondrously burnished “Liebst du um Schönheit” filling things out.
But the most interesting selections here are two Reger pieces from 1915: “Der Einsiedler” and the “Requiem.” Both were written in quick succession and share numerous stylistic traits (thick textures and dense, chromatic harmonic progressions chief among them).
The former, for baritone, choir, and orchestra, sets a text by Josef von Eichendorff imagining a respite from the tumult of the world. The “Requiem” is similarly scored and sets a poem by Friederich Hebbel. Intended as a lament for the dead of the Great War, Reger’s “Requiem,” with its evocations of Bach and Brahms, actually manages to evoke (and anticipate) similar valedictory pieces by his contemporaries, Stanford and Parry.
Either way, the performances here are well and warmly sung, both by Prégardien and the Camerata Vocale Freiburg. The orchestral contributions in each are competently done, though the ensemble’s textures are cleanest in “Der Einsiedler.” But Toll ensures that the instruments never cover the voices: even Prégardien’s lowest notes in the “Requiem” project clearly.
Filling out the album is Zemlinsky’s setting of Psalm 23. The Camerata’s account ably navigates Zemlinsky’s chromatic, sometimes leaping melodic lines well enough, though their numbers sound a bit thin at big moments and their diction is occasionally imprecise.
That said, textures are lean, tempos move, and Toll’s reading nicely draws out the orchestral part’s sense of character and color.
Richard Strauss’s lieder have been amply served on disc – including, previously, by Diana Damrau. The soprano’s new recording of songs for voice and orchestra (as well as piano) showcases Damrau in her glorious prime: she’s a singer whose clarity of timbre, pristine diction, and musicality seem tailor-made to Strauss’s vocal writing.
And, indeed, Damrau’s collaborations with pianist Helmut Deutsch are a meeting of musical minds in perfect expressive synchronicity. This is simply Strauss as he ought to be sung, from the charming Mädchenblumen collection to the Lieder der Ophelia and various individual selections.
It’s the selections with orchestra, though, that prove most touching – partly on account of the fact that they pair Damrau with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in one of the conductor’s final recordings before his death in 2019.
In fact, the Vier letzte Lieder (with Damrau as soloist) featured on Jansons’s final concert at Carnegie Hall last November. This recording of Strauss’s autumnal masterpiece may not suggest that particular farewell – there’s a gripping urgency to the orchestral playing in “Frühling” and plenty of rhythmic energy on display in “September,” for instance – but it’s one of the finest Jansons performances to come out over these last several years: emotionally direct, beautifully balanced, and tonally radiant.
Those same qualities also mark the pairing’s reading of “Morgen,” which closes the disc.
In all, then, there’s some fine Strauss, featuring several of the best in the business. If that’s your cup of tea – and why shouldn’t it be? – you won’t want to miss it.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.