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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888-9) [18:08]
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1888-9) [24:47]
Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils (1905) [10:20]
Der Rosenkavalier: Suite (1909-10/1944) [19:56]
New York Philharmonic/Lorin Maazel
rec. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, March and September-October 2005
Experience Classicsonline

Universal's issue of these sort-of-concert-performances - more on that later - brings us once again up against the Maazel Enigma. Lorin Maazel is a respected conductor with an enduring high-profile career and an expansive discography, but his recordings seem rarely to inspire much enthusiasm among discophiles; nor, truly, do some of them do much to explain his standing.
Back in the 1970s, when Maazel was director in Cleveland, I had a friend who was sister to one of that orchestra's hornists. The opinion of many of the players, as she relayed it to me, was that the conductor could do absolutely anything with the baton - he apparently has a ferociously accomplished technique - but "he simply ha[d] no taste." That statement, although too summary a dismissal of an eminent artist, has its core of truth: in a Maazel performance, sublime passages can sit alongside self-conscious or awkward ones, even within the confines of a single work or movement! Indeed, the trap for any virtuoso musician - conductor, pianist, whoever - is the temptation to do things simply because s/he can, which doesn't necessarily serve the music.
Then there's the paradox that, for all his technical assurance, Maazel doesn't always seem aware of what the orchestra is actually doing -- a fair amount of untidy playing mars his Decca work. In his Sibelius Second, the Vienna Philharmonic is all over the place; even in Cleveland, leading the ensemble that Szell honed to chamber clarity and Boulez maintained, the first two Brahms symphonies are disgracefully slipshod and inattentive.
These puzzling but - to coin an oxymoron - consistent inconsistencies mark all these Strauss performances, along with some good things.
Maazel's first recorded Don Juan - with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca, some forty years ago - reduced Strauss's brilliant orchestral palette to so many uninspiring shades of grey. I had attributed that to the engineering - many of Karajan's Decca recordings from Vienna sounded like this as well - but now I'm wondering whether Maazel simply hears the piece this way: the New York Philharmonic, too, sounds remarkably monochromatic, except where the brasses contribute crisp accents and bright overtones. No doubt someone will pipe up that Maazel's Bavarian Radio recording for RCA, which I've not heard, sounds nothing like this.
Interpretively, there are questionable details. The tenuto on the last brass pickup to the main theme merely calls attention to itself. The little passage at 1:30, leading up to the bass outburst, is just not together, for no clear reason -- there were rehearsals, right? The first "love theme" builds cleanly and clearly, but abstractly; there's not much sense of surge, or of expansiveness in the tone. Things improve later on. The oboe is lovely, if a bit self-consciously molded, in the second "love theme"; there's both delicacy and rhythmic thrust beginning at 11:18; and the final recapitulation has a good forward impulse.
Death and Transfiguration, on the other hand, begins promisingly. In the atmospheric introduction, Maazel places and weights details precisely, to calm, steady effect. Nor is there any shortage of timbral variety: the flute and clarinet with their clear, "open" float, the plaintive oboe, the serene, consoling solo violin all shine brightly. The arrival of the turbulent music at 5:16 brings an immediate, concentrated surge of energy, but the conductor gets caught short in the broad middle section of the score, which, as usual, seems to run one episode too long. The liquid woodwinds at 9:42 are gorgeous, but in the subsequent string-dominated passage, the textures are transparent, but not translucent; they don't shimmer. Superfluous tenutos intrude at 14:56 and, clumsily, at 21:55, where the strings have to shoehorn a steady rhythmic accompaniment around it. The long closing section, like the introduction, has a nice feel for the weight and expression inherent in the harmonies, here formed by the counterpoint among various motifs. Maazel can't solve the score's structural problems, but his performance improves markedly on his Vienna account, the LP companion to Don Juan.
This energetic, vigorous Salome's Dance didn't do much for me. The oboe solo isn't particularly sensuous, but the violins have a lovely sheen, and the 'cellos are warm. The noisier tuttis are accented in an insistent, obsessive-compulsive manner which, while not inappropriate, becomes a bit unvaried.
The Rosenkavalier suite has its moments, mostly in the orchestral version of the final trio, which arises from a nice hush and blossoms into a full-throated climax. The waltzes, especially the slower ones,  tend to fall into short segments, with Maazel imposing exaggerated, faux-Viennese hesitations.  The effect at 3:38 of track 5, with its marked snare drum afterbeats, is particularly stilted. Nor was such finagling necessary: DG's New Year's Concerts attest that the conductor can give perfectly straightforward performances of Viennese music on its home turf. The final section of the suite is rollicking, but the brief coda turns manic. Earlier on, some muzzy rhythmic coordination among parallel strings could have been corrected, and the splashy brass entries are a bit hard-edged.
The title of the "DG Concerts" series - in which most performances are being offered exclusively as downloads - would seem to imply unedited concert accounts, but the listing of multiple recording dates - three for each group of two pieces - suggests a certain amount of cross-cutting from among various subscription performances. The applause retained after each work suggests that the New York audiences enjoyed all this considerably more than I did.
Stephen Francis Vasta


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