My expectations of Diana Damrau's most recent recital disc were stratospherically high. Damrau is a singer whose technique and musical intelligence I admire, and here she is partnered by none other than Strauss-specialist Christian Thielemann leading the Münchner Philharmoniker. At first listen, I was a little disappointed; the rich detail and intense passion of Strauss's lieder did not come through with the clarity I expected. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say "in the manner I expected," since more, and more attentive listening led to a revision of this judgment. Not all of the songs come through with equal individuality, in my opinion, but Damrau's security of phrasing and excellent diction keep them on a firm footing throughout. With Thielemann and the orchestra I cannot find fault; dynamics and tempi were handled with nuance and insight. Indeed, Damrau and the other musicians seem on this disc to do the reverse of tearing a passion to tatters: subtlety and restraint allow the rich intensity of Strauss's "miniatures," as Damrau calls them, to shine, perhaps differently than the listener expects them to.
In this EMI video, Damrau talks about the songs and her interpretation of them. Neither her enthusiasm for the material nor her charm comes as a surprise:
The generous program includes twenty-two of Strauss's songs, of widely varying familiarity, and widely varied moods. On the whole, I found Damrau to be at her most compelling in her interpretations of the lesser-known lieder. I feel somewhat ungenerous saying so, because her "Morgen," for example, is certainly exquisite, but I didn't find in it exquisite intimacy. Some may well find her unusually controlled take on "Zueignung" revelatory; perhaps it's just a coarseness of sensibility or a failure of imagination that makes me think hardly any performance of that half-delirious outpouring could be too unrestrained. The sensitivity with which Thielemann and his forces cherished the delicate and the detailed within these lush orchestrations was revelatory, though. Seldom, if ever, have these songs seemed to me less indulgent, or more insightful. On the subject of insight: Damrau's attention to text is practically swoon-inducing. For an example, try her delightful "Amor." At her best, she combines that with phrasing and vocal color to insist on the significance of the lied and her interpretation of it, to overwhelming effect. "Waldseligkeit" was the one that hit me hardest, but that's not excerpted, so here's "Lied der Frauen," taken from the recording sessions. Seeing the physicality of how Damrau engages with the music is a bonus: