Qilian Chen / Dirk Brossé

Richard Strauss: Famous Orchestral Songs

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While China is known as an economic superpower, it may also be known as an opera superpower. Chinese soprano Qilian Chen delights the listener in this album of well-known and loved lieder by Richard Strauss, accompanied by the Shanghai Opera House Orchestra conducted by Belgian composer/conductor Dirk Brossé. What is most striking about Chen is, simply, her voice. It conveys emotions deep from her soul with power, a mezzo-like timbre, and a clean, cool sound that might remind the listener of the greats from the 1950s and '60s. It is also a treat to hear the orchestral accompaniments to these famous songs, for they take on a whole new dimension than when played on the piano. Chen's voice creates a sense of mystery in Befreit, and the orchestra adds to it with nuanced phrasing. The pastoral character of Ich trage meine Minne shows Chen reaching into the depths of her being. The orchestra begins in an appealingly ominous way in Ruhe, meine Seele and then waxes almost Wagnerian in its climactic moments, but the ending is pure Strauss. One truly believes Chen when she sings the title line sotto voce, piano. The violin introduction to Morgen is lovely and lyrical, but unfortunately the violinist remains uncredited. Chen ends it with tender, quiet emotion from Stumm on, capturing the delicate nature of the song that makes it so beloved even today. The introduction to Cäcilie is sweeping and grand; one cannot help but wish that more of this energy were present in the orchestra throughout the album, for the accompaniment sometimes sounds underenergized. Even stronger than the already-strong first set of songs are the Vier Letzte Lieder (Strauss' four last songs). Chen's Beim Schlafengehen is nuanced and heartfelt, but it is her Im Abendrot that makes one sit up and take notice. Strauss' trademark "blooming," unfolding music in the orchestra leads the way for the soprano to enter stealthily. Chen's voice is so clean and pure here, and it is sheer pleasure to hear it intertwine with the liquid solo violin line. The whole piece is like a beautiful, shimmering dream, and the long orchestral ending contrasts brass chord changes with flute trills before dying out like the embers of a fire. True, Chen's consonantal diction could be sharpened (on phrases such as "wie einst im Mai"), and her vibrato tends to run wide, which some listeners may find not to their taste. But it is hard to ignore Chen's excellent technique, the color of her voice, and her ability to convey her moods so convincingly and appealingly.

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