WAGNER: Wesendonck Lieder. STRAUSS:
Four Last Songs.
BERG: Seven Early Songs.
British soprano Jane Eaglen has been called a "force of nature," a phenomenon in the operatic world, which indeed she is. Physically imposing, she has a huge voice, incredible volume and stamina to stay fresh throughout the most demanding Wagner music dramas (she has yet to assay the bigger Strauss roles on stage). For her third Sony solo recording she has chosen repertory listed above, all of which apparently she has performed in orchestral appearances, so they are not new to her.
The recordings were made in February, March and October 1999. Eaglen is not in her best form throughout. There is a touch of insecurity in sustained notes, evidenced right at the beginning of "Der Engel," the first of the Wesendonck Lieder, and throughout the Four Last Songs, a bit disturbing at this early stage of her career. What might happen later? Some listeners might not object, but I find this wavering on notes distracting. There are, indeed, some glorious outpourings of high notes. However, there is very little interpretation, per se.
Eaglen is at her best in Wesendonck Lieder but does not challenge the finest recordings of the past, notably those by Kirsten Flagstad, Christa Ludwig and the magnificent Eileen Farrell/Stokowski recording from 1947, never issued on CD. Everything Eaglen sings on this new recording -- Wagner, Strauss, Berg -- sounds the same. Ms. Eaglen's proficient run-through of the Strauss disappoints. With her stamina and power it's difficult to understand why she doesn't sing the concluding phrase of the second song, "September," in one breath. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's definitive 1953 recording of Four Last Songs is challenged, perhaps even matched by RenČe Fleming in her RCA recording with Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony (68539). Fleming's performance is glorious, a model of sensitivity, nuance and insight. How fortunate that she has Eschenbach's accompaniment -- the finest ever recorded. RCA's sonic picture has the soloist too close, but that is another matter.
Even though I was not impressed by Barbara Bonney's recent Decca recording of the Berg songs (with Riccardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw) I prefer it to Eaglen's prosaic, although often beautiful performance.
Engineering on this new CD is first-rate, with Eaglen's huge voice well-balanced, permitting rich orchestral accompaniments to be heard. For this recording Sony advises they used "24-bit technology to maximize sound quality." The last Eaglen recording (SK 60042) used "20-bit technology to maximize sound quality." It really makes no difference. Complete texts are provided, with English/German translation.