This Decca Legends issue offers exactly the same programme as the newly remastered Naxos disc. There is also a super-bargain Regis, which includes an extra aria from "Ariadne auf Naxos" ("Ein Schönes war") conducted live in 1954 by Böhm and also substitutes a live performance of the final scene from "Capriccio", conducted in 1953 by Johannes den Hertog. The bonus "Ariadne" excerpt and the extra frisson and immediacy derived from the live "Capriccio", in combination with the low price, should make the Regis an attractive alternative; unfortunately their clumsy remastering from LPs has resulted in too much obtrusive "wow and swoosh" to make it wholly recommendable - yet the Regis disc retains its value for the animation of that live "Capriccio" performance and the fact that despite its rough edgy sound and prominent harps, it retains upper frequencies lost in the fuller, richer sound of both the Decca and the Naxos versions. Previous reviewers have wondered whether Decca's re-engineering for the Legends series has not removed too many of those upper frequencies; I can say only that to my ears, the singers have been brought forward and the orchestra has more presence; both welcome improvements, despite the very slightly duller, more muffled quality.
Much has already been written about the creamy beauty of Lisa della Casa's voice, especially in Strauss. The composer called her his ideal Arabella and there is ample evidence for his enthusiasm in these excerpts. There is nothing overt or over-emotive about her singing; the voice soars effortlessly heavenwards, surprising the listener with its power despite its essentially lyric quality. In addition to radiant tone and innate musicality, della Casa had the indefinable ability to touch the heart of both the listener and the character she embodies.
Della Casa here sings the "Four Last Songs" in the order preferred by the composer, although as a modern listener I would need some convincing that this sequence is really artistically preferable. Leaving that aside, it is refreshing to hear these songs sung so straightforwardly; the angelic radiance of her tone, the broad, arcing phrasing on a long breath and the refusal to swoon create spirituality without a trace of sentimentality. First-time listeners might be taken aback by the complementary directness of Böhm's brisk accompaniment; there is little use of ritardando or the courting of stasis so common in more reverential readings - but it suits della Casa's mode perfectly and her interpretation forms a welcome counterpoint to the more indulgent, Romanticised versions we have become used to. Some find her cool in these songs; I suggest that they are not listening properly.
We are then treated to her interpretations of three great Straussian ladies and can again admire the economy with which she portrays their varied emotions. She is equally convincing and adorable in all three rôles, from the ironic playfulness of the Countess, to the wistfulness of Arabella, to the naïve piety of Ariadne - and in glorious voice throughout; the trenchancy of her low A flat on "Totenreich" immediately followed by a ringing B flat on "Hermes" is testament to a voice in prime condition throughout its two registers. Furthermore, this anthology comprises some of the most delicate, moving and sensuous music Strauss ever wrote; the ideal vehicle for such a voice to float and soar in. Is there a more luscious tune in opera than the long-breathed melody which launches Arabella's "Aber der Richtige"? Not when sung as it is here by della Casa, I submit - especially when Gueden answers her with Zdenka's dreamy rejoinder and the two voices intertwine. If I have any criticism at all, it is to cavil about della Casa's occasional use of a half-aspirate to change pitch in the upper reaches of her voice, but otherwise it is voice as close to perfection as one could encounter. She is happily supported by three great Vienna regulars in Hilde Gueden, Paul Schoeffler and Alfred Poell, all perfectly in character and vocally impressive.
For me, however, the centrepiece of this programme is the closing scene from "Capriccio". As much as I love Gundula Janowitz and Renée Fleming in this music, della Casa is the supreme aristocrat in this role, singing with a purity, charm and unfeigned sincerity which are utterly irresistible.
And all the while, we can enjoy the luxury of the finest orchestra possible in this music. The Vienna Philharmonic provides a velvet cushion of sound, utterly at ease in Strauss's idiom. Despite the mono sound, the "Moonlight" music has rarely sounded more magical.
While I still appreciate the added sonority of a modern stereo recording such as that given to Fleming in her marvellous disc of Strauss bon-bons with Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney, I would never want to be without this magnificent souvenir of perhaps the greatest Strauss soprano ever. Similarly, while treasurable recordings of the "Four Last Songs" are legion, every devotee should make room on the shelves for this one, no matter how many versions he owns.