What a march
the once derided, undervalued and under-funded
regional orchestras have stolen on London-based
bands over the last few years!
There can be few remaining doubts
that Bournemouth and Manchester play host to two of the most dynamic
groups around, whereas London orchestras almost without exception
suffer dull programming and faceless non-entity permanent or guest
conductors whose supposed 'reputation' goes before them. Worse
still, they suffer both at once with astounding regularity. But
I was careful to say almost without exception - and where exceptions
exist we, the music-loving public, should be grateful and give
them our whole-hearted support.
In the case of Manchester, the Hallé
has re-captured its glory days once again under Mark Elder’s committed
and inspired leadership. The sense of the orchestra riding the
crest of a wave comes through when hearing them live, as indeed
it does on their recordings.
Richard Strauss under Elder’s leadership
promises much. Both are after all men of the theatre and this
is felt in their respective handlings of orchestral works. What
more theatrical works could one have than those inspired by Don
Juan and Macbeth?
Elder’s opening flourish to Don
Juan immediately sets the broader scene for this disc: rhythmically
alert, nicely blooming brass, firm bass lines and characterful
woodwind solos. But there is a problem too. Given that these are
studio recordings I was surprised by the relative lack of upper
strings presence – at times they almost disappear. Hopefully this
is an issue that will not persist in future recordings.
My comparisons were the classic accounts
of both works by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe
(on EMI as part of a 9CD box set 5 73614 2, also available separately).
With Elder adopting a marginally swifter tempo in Don Juan,
the action is kept moving, and the tension taut – not that Kempe
was ever one to sound plodding or overly loose in his drawing
of the music. Kempe scores for me by a narrow margin due to the
extra expression you get through his violins, but there is little
between the two in terms of heroic effort and vision. Both pick
out the internal contrasts wonderfully and achieve identification
with Don Juan’s labours.
Regarding Strauss lieder there are
those, myself included, that prefer them with piano accompaniment
as opposed to their later orchestral incarnations. The intimacy
that is achievable between piano and voice adds to their impact
and emotionality. Set against the larger orchestral canvas these
aspects can become lost. Unlike some, I do not hold Strauss lieder
to be the sole preserve of sopranos: hear the likes of Anders,
Keenlyside, Winberg or Wunderlich and you will find how convincing
they are. But inevitably, Strauss’s special association with the
soprano voice always draws you back to soprano versions from other
illicit encounters, no matter what their merits.
Soprano Anne Schwanewilms has taken
Strauss to the core of her repertoire on stage and in recital.
Clearly she does not think of Strauss’s lieder as opera, as Christine
Brewer does (re. her recording with piano for the Strauss lieder
edition on Hyperion). Schwanewilms scales the vocal line accordingly,
often catching an edge in it that aids the word-painting of the
texts. In comparison to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s recordings with
George Szell of orchestral lieder (EMI 5 66908 2) Schwanewilms
never acquires the air of technical self-consciousness in the
voice that can mar the Schwarzkopf readings on repeated listening.
Elder holds the orchestra in proportion, not that the orchestrations
are particularly large-scale and encourages playing of real support
and feeling. Indeed they are of a similar mould, and it is a pity
that seven more contrasting songs were not chosen. And why only
seven songs given the spare disc space and potential material?
But as things are they are more than a mere interlude, making
a welcome and absorbing contrast to the tone poems.
The tone poem Macbeth, which
concludes this release, could well be unfamiliar to listeners,
even lovers of Richard Strauss’ music. It predates Don Juan,
despite carrying a later opus number, and was Strauss’s first
essay in the tone poem genre begun at the age of 22. Strauss’s
mentor, conductor Hans von Bülow, criticized the work – in particular
the triumphal march ending for Macduff. This led to two revisions
before the piece achieved its final form, although too many ‘inner
parts’ and dissonances remained for Bülow’s liking.
True, this is a work that at times
displays the inexperience of the composer – contrast it with Don
Juan written just one year later to see how quickly Strauss’s
dramatic sensitivity developed – but this in no way should be
held as the reason for the work’s relative obscurity. There are
elements here that point to Strauss’s later stage and orchestral
directions, and knowledge of the work greatly increases your appreciation
of Strauss as a whole.
Elder’s reading is informed by his
understanding of later works and the Straussian idiom in general.
It clearly draws out the musical lines used to paint the characters,
though presents the whole less starkly than Kempe. Kempe is apt
to emphasise the rough edges of the fatal flaws that control the
destiny of the Macbeths. Elder could be said to be romantic in
some respects, though the music never falls to syrupy mush, which
would be totally misplaced. If the music is not quite so at the
Hallé’s fingertips they hide it valiantly, and bring it off creditably.
For those not wanting the expense of Kempe’s 9CD set, but wanting
to sample a rewarding lesser-known work, then this disc answers
Amply documented too, this issue covers
all in glory (some technical issues with the recording aside),
and leaves the sense of discovering something new, even in well
known works. I can only encourage the Hallé to continue, and perhaps
it will not be too long before we have their Sinfonia Domestica,
a work Elder has long championed.