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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30* (1896) [34:04]
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1889) [18:12]
Der Rosenkavalier Suite (1945) [23:42]
Ronald Hoogeveen (solo violin)*
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland/Edo de Waart
rec. 11-15 March 2005, Studio of Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland, MCO, Hilversum
EXTON OVCL 00218 [75:58]


Man-apes and monoliths may not be what Nietzsche had in mind when he wrote Zarathustra, but for many the title will always be synonymous with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That famous opening fanfare has appeared on countless compilations and the work itself has had a number of excellent recordings over the past fifty years or so. Notable among these are versions by Fritz Reiner, whose ‘Living Stereo’ account has now been released as an SACD, Rudolf Kempe, Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan who recorded it once for Decca and twice for DG.

Zarathustra has always been a great demonstration disc – I remember Ozawa’s Philips recording was among the first batch of CDs released in 1983 – but in the right hands this is a marvellous piece in it own right. Throw in stereo and multi-channel SACD and two decent fillers – Don Juan and the suite from Der Rosenkavalier – and this Exton offering looks very tempting indeed.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that sonically and artistically this recording is a let-down. At the very outset the glorious C major ‘sunrise’ sounds flat – in every sense of the word – and the great climax comes across as muddled. Thinking there may be a problem with my SACD player I tried the disc on a PC and on another stand-alone machine and the result was essentially the same: strident treble, unfocused bass and a curiously one-dimensional soundstage.

De Waart recorded some decent Strauss in Minnesota but here his tempi are too measured, even laboured, and the Dutch strings are either seriously undernourished or the recording makes them sound that way. Just listen to how Karajan and the Berliners phrase that marvellously lyrical string passage in ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’, which Strauss marks to be played ‘reverently’, and you will get some idea of the mountain de Waart and his band have to climb.

Granted, Karajan’s isn’t the only way to play this music but at least he maintains that essential intensity and thrust, especially when it comes to the yearning motif in ‘Von der grossen Sehnsucht’. Later, in ‘Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften’, the Dutch orchestra remains stubbornly earthbound; the lack of front-to-back perspective is most keenly felt here, with the timps suddenly sounding much more upfront than before.

In ‘Das Grablied’ there is some lovely playing from the woodwind and lower strings. Indeed, the quieter music comes off best, notably in the more reflective ‘Von der Wissenschaft’. Here at last is some atmospheric and characterful playing, although once again the balance seems a little suspect - surely the harp at 2:46 is much too far forward?

In the more complex fugal writing of ‘Der Genesende’ the sonic nasties return but in mitigation the start of that strange waltz sounds promising. The Dutch players don’t manage that echt-Viennese lilt in ‘Das Tanzlied’ but that may have more to do with de Waart’s awkward phrasing than the quality of the orchestra.

The music proceeds without pause into ‘Das Nachwandler Lied’ and the tolling of the midnight bell. It’s a wild and rather difficult moment to pull off and regrettably it seems anti-climactic here. I really missed that febrile quality that Karajan brings to the score at this juncture; by comparison de Waart’s reading is doggedly literal, the enigmatic close devoid of all magic or mystery.

The pause between Zarathustra and Don Juan is far too brief – I hardly had time to reach for the remote – but at least the music starts with more gusto than I dared hope for. The performance seems generally more buoyant and alert than before but the downside is that we are back to that awful fatiguing sound. Could the Hilversum studio be to blame, in part at least – there seems to be very little reverberation or warmth – or is the recording at fault? Perhaps it’s a combination of the two, but either way it’s immensely frustrating.

Thankfully de Waart finds a welcome degree of wistfulness in the work’s dreamier episodes – Nikolaus Lenau’s 19th-century Don is something of a philosopher – and some nobility, too. In terms of balance, though, the harp seems to have receded somewhat but the drum thwacks, crisp and powerful as they are, suddenly sound alarmingly close. So, rather more successful than Zarathustra, but really the rapier thrust of death can’t come too soon for this disillusioned Don.

Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, from which he arranged a suite – first published in 1945 – is a lovely confection, crammed with delectable tunes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ardent prelude. In his classic disc of Rosenkavalier excerpts Silvio Varviso whips the VPO horns into a frenzy – no doubts about Octavian’s sexual prowess here – to exhilarating effect. Next to the Viennese the Dutch horns don’t so much whoop as yelp. Sad to say, that version is currently unavailable.

Regrettably matters don’t get any better. Where Varviso is attuned to the music’s ambiguous, bittersweet character de Waart struggles to find any character at all, Viennese or otherwise. And anyone who has heard Carlos Kleiber’s magical performance of the entire opera (DG DVD 0730089) will know just how much fizz and sparkle there is in this elegant score. Elegance is certainly not an epithet that comes to mind here; de Waart just seems to push too hard, robbing the music of all its inherent sophistication and charm. Indeed, the coda is so overdriven that it sounds less like Strauss and more like the demonic La Valse.

The composer’s self-deprecating comment about being a first-rate composer of second-rate music surely conceals another truth: that first-rate conductors and orchestras are required to do them justice. Unfortunately the Dutch band isn’t in that league and despite his Straussian credentials de Waart doesn’t inspire them here. Couple this with a quirky recording and you have a very disappointing disc indeed.

Dan Morgan




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