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Renee Fleming: 'Four Last Songs' Of Strauss

In 1948, German composer Richard Strauss set Hermann Hesse's beautiful poem "September" to music, but he didn't live to hear it on stage. It's part of a set now known as Four Last Songs, a song cycle marked by an awareness and acceptance of death. Renee Fleming is a world-famous soprano known for her Strauss repertoire, and her latest recording features his last compositions, as well as various Strauss songs and arias.

The pieces are perfect for autumn: As the days get shorter and darker, there's a feeling of things drawing to a close.

"I think the pieces represent an allegory of the passages of life," Fleming says. "When you think of the stage of life that Strauss was actually in, they were his last songs."

Fleming tells host Andrea Seabrook that Strauss brought Hesse's poetry to life — particularly her favorite passage, the first verse of "September": "The garden is in mourning / The cool rain seeps into the flowers / Summertime shudders, quietly awaiting his end."

This is actually Fleming's second recording of Four Last Songs, and she says she was happy to revisit the material. To date, it's the most widely performed work in her repertoire, but the first time she recorded the pieces in 1995, she'd never performed or sung them at all. That's unusual for an epic work like Four Last Songs.

Fleming stresses the collaboration with conductor Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic, especially since the soprano masterwork was recorded in concert.

"Christian Thielemann and the orchestra really are 60 percent of the contribution," Fleming says. "I can only be as good as they are. Thielemann leads the performance. It's he who — in collaboration with me — forges the shape of the new recording. He brought a lot of freshness to the piece."

That freshness meant approaching Four Last Songs in a different light.

"There's no point in recording something if you're going to do the same thing," Fleming says. "Christian said, 'I don't see these songs as sad or really sentimental. I see them as hopeful.' I said, 'Great. Let's do something new.'"

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