New classical albums

New in stores: Recordings of Richard Strauss's 'Four Last Songs' by Nina Stemme and Kirsten Flagstad. Which is better?

Mark Padmore – As Steals the Morn: Handel Arias & Scenes for Tenor (Harmonia Mundi): Despite the album's precious title and artwork (rugged shots of Mr. Padmore atop a heath, complete with brooding twilight skies behind him) there is nothing cheesy about this convincingly sung, excellently curated collection of numbers from Handel's operas and oratorios. Castrati and sopranos usually overshadowed tenors in Handel's day, but Padmore's selections and his singing make a strong case that this was the audience's – not the composer's – preference. The English tenor's voice is ardent and masculine, but still supple enough to handle the music's baroque curlicues. My only quibble: his Italian diction is a full step down from his native English. Otherwise, an ear-opening disc courtesy of Padmore and conductor Andrew Manze, whose English Concert provides the richly textured accompaniment. Grade: A–

Nina Stemme – Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (EMI Classics): Swedish soprano Nina Stemme won Placido Domingo's Operalia singing contest and impressed many in her EMI debut as Wagner's Isolde (opposite the star tenor's Tristan). This new disc of Strauss is her eagerly awaited follow-up. Stemme's dark, burnished soprano is immediately grabbing, and, yes, she nails the high-B in "Fruhling" ("Spring"), though her singing never envelops you in the music. There is no bloom to her voice here – and as an interpreter of Strauss, there is little emotional connection to the words or music. She belts these intimate songs as if they are simply another aria in a big opera. Stemme sounds more comfortable in the two selections from Salome and Capriccio but they, too, fail to evoke any of the sensuousness of Strauss' melodies – to say nothing of their sheer sonic power. A disappointment. Grade: C–

Kirsten Flagstad – Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (Testament): As if to challenge the new EMI recording, Testament has released a new digitally remastered version of the original acetate recordings of the world première of Strauss' final songs. The sound remains warbled and scratchy, but the voice of Kirsten Flagstad (by most accounts, the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the 20th century) cuts through the noise and allows one to experience the end of a musical era. (Strauss personally gave these songs to Flagstad, but he died nine months before the performance on May 22, 1950.) What's remarkable is the way both Flagstad and conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler approach the material without pretense or fuss, treating these sweeping, valedictory lieder as just four more songs in the Strauss repertory. The result is direct and ravishing. Grade: A–

Matti Salminen – Artist Portrait (Warner Classics): There may be basses with smoother legatos or darker hues than Matti Salminen, but few voices can match the veteran Finnish singer when it comes to the full range of color and character of operatic basso roles. The album is little more than a sampler of Salminen's distinguished performances (assembled mostly from Teldec studio recordings); still, it is a worthy and multifaceted portrait. Salminen's well-known mastery of German-language roles in Wagner & Mozart operas is represented here, but arias from Rossini and Verdi (recorded live with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and never before released in the US) are an unexpected delight. In any language, Salminen's voice expresses comedy, tragedy, and every emotion in between. Grade: B+

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