How the Philharmonia Orchestra premiered Strauss’ Four Last Songs

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 11:53

On 13 May 1949, at his home by Lake Geneva, bemoaning the poor health that prevents him from attending concerts, an elderly Strauss sits writing at his typewriter. Inspired by news reports of an extraordinary recital in Zurich, he has compiled a set of scores for the legendary performer, Kirsten Flagstad. In his letter to the performer (below) Strauss asks her if she would consider performing some of his most demanding songs for operatic soprano - ‘the performance of which is closed to ordinary singers’. 

Strauss includes masterpieces like Frühlingsfeier, Wiegenlied and Cäcilie, but at the end of the letter, he chooses to offer something further: in a now-historic sentence in the Philharmonia’s history, he suggests…

…I also add that I have the pleasure to provide for you my Four Last Songs with orchestra, which are currently in print in London; to give their premiere performance in an orchestral concert with a first-class conductor and orchestra…

It is a sentence which is monumental in the history of one of our resident orchestras, the Philharmonia Orchestra, because, not only did Flagstad accept Strauss’ offer, she chose to perform his Four Last Songs with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Just over a year on from the composer’s original letter, and eight months on from his death, Flagstad and the Philharmonia premiered Strauss final works at the Royal Albert Hall.


 

On Thursday 6 December, soprano Sophie Bevan follows in Flagstad’s footsteps, performing the Four Last Songs with the Philharmonia Orchestra under their Principal Guest Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali. 

The all-Strauss evening also features his suite from Der Rosenkavalier, an opera so successful that special trains ran from Berlin to Dresden to whisk audiences to its opening run, and the epic Alpine Symphony, which deploys an orchestra of 125 players, including organ, cowbells and a thunder machine, in a vivid description of a day’s hiking in the Alps.

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