Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Op.35a (1897) [41:07]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28b (1895) [15:29]
Don Juan, Op. 20c (1888) [16:53]
Paul Torteliera (cello)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempeab/Fritz Lehmannc
rec. June 1958, Grunewaldkirche, Berlin (Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegels); 6-7 January 1954, Jesus Christ Church, Berlin (Don Juan)
REGIS RRC1371 [73:37]

By my reckoning the music of Richard Strauss ranks fifth in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s post-war list of most played composers. The tone poems Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel have been enduring staples of their repertoire. I have looked at listings of Berlin Philharmonic concerts at home and abroad during 1954-57; a period close to the time that the scores on this Regis re-issue were recorded. Standing out as one of the most performed of all works was Don Juan with Till Eulenspiegel also frequently played. Don Quixote proved rather less popular. I should think its relative neglect is nothing to do with its quality but owing to its length of over forty minutes - the duration of a typical symphony.

Between the wartime destruction of their regular home at the (alte) Philharmonie in 1944 and the opening of the new Philharmonie in 1963 the Berlin Philharmonic used a number of venues for their concerts: halls that had not been too badly damaged by bombing. The majority of the orchestra’s concerts were held initially in the large auditorium of the Titania Palast cinema at Steglitz which had been left miraculously undamaged. Later the primary venue was the hall of the Berlin Academy of Music. I have read complaints about the poor acoustics at both the Titania Palast and the Academy with the latter’s auditorium having a relatively small audience capacity.

In the 1950s and early 1960s before the re-born Philharmonie the majority of the Berlin Phil’s recordings were made at the Jesus Christ Church at Berlin, Dahlem. An extremely popular recording venue the church is still used for that purpose today. However Rudolf Kempe made this stereo recording of Don Quixote and Till Eulenspiegel at the Grunewaldkirche, Berlin in 1958. I have also discovered that Fritz Lehmann’s mono recording of Don Juan with the Berlin Philharmonic was recorded in 1954. The likelihood is that Lehmann made the recording at the Berlin Dahlem venue which he had used for several other Berlin Philharmonic recordings.

Strauss’s Don Quixote fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character for large orchestra was named after the greatest of all characters from Spanish literature. Strauss had been inspired by the picaresque novel by Miguel de Cervantes, an intensely sympathetic representation of the errant knight, Don Quixote de la Mancha. The main character is represented by a solo cello played here by the eminent soloist Paul Tortelier. Quixote’s assistant Sancho Panza is depicted mainly by a solo viola played by Giusto Cappone and sometimes by the bass clarinet and tenor tuba.

Right from the opening bars Kempe obtains playing of spine-tingling beauty. The sumptuous outpouring of music sweeps and glistens with all sections having the ability to shine. I especially enjoyed the biting brass at 5:27-5:59 heralding the entry at 6:00 of Don Quixote with Tortelier’s cello revealing a glorious timbre. So expressive is Tortelier that at times it feels as if his cello it is speaking and even weeping. With the sudden thud at 9:15 it is easy to imagine the deluded Quixote tilting at windmills after mistaking them for giants and being unceremoniously thrown from his horse. Following quickly on is the convincingly sombre mood as the blundering knight-errant sits on the ground licking his wounds. In the Finale Kempe and Tortelier shape a strangely calm and peaceful atmosphere as Quixote lies dying.

The tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks) after an old picaresque legend in rondo form for large orchestra, Op, 28 was composed by Strauss in 1895. Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’s mischievous prankster, is a character from fourteenth century traditional German folk legends. This agreeably heart-warming score is full of light-hearted mischief. Kempe directs a most convincing depiction of the likable rascal. At 8:19 the near-sardonic waltz is so light on its feet and the impish melody on the horn is strikingly played with joy and relish. I loved the sense of sorrow and near-tragedy in the Finale followed immediately by the abrupt resurrection of the roguish Till who in the final bars humorously cannot resist cocking a snook at authority.

The final work is the Don Juan tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau’s dramatic poem, Op. 20. It was the seventeenth century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina who created the character of the renowned Spanish lover Don Juan from traditional folk legends. Many playwrights were inspired to write about Don Juan notably Dumas, Byron, Dumas and Molière. Based on the play by Hungarian poet Nikolaus Lenau, Strauss was only twenty-four when he first made sketches for this orchestral masterpiece in 1888. This period was an extremely happy one in Strauss’s life as around this time he was in love with his future wife soprano Pauline de Ahna. Lehmann directs a noble introduction to the score that soon reverts to its predominantly lush and ripe sensuality. Tempestuous and powerful the Berlin orchestra’s surges of restless energy are almost overwhelming.

The Regis booklet contains a fine essay from Hugo Shirley but the recording information that should have been provided is sketchy. Now over fifty years old the sound quality is highly impressive for its age. Kempe and Lehmann are first class conductors who obtain vitally refreshing and thrillingly recorded performances. I would be perfectly happy if these accounts were the only ones in my collection.

Michael Cookson

I would be perfectly happy if these accounts were the only ones in my collection.