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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Orchestral works

Disc 1:
Aus Italien, Opus 16 (1886)
Macbeth, Opus 23 (1888)
Disc 2:
Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40 (1899)
Tod und Verklärung, Opus 24 (1889)
Disc 3:
Don Juan, Opus 20 (1888)
Till Eulenspiegel, Opus 28 (1895)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30 (1896)
Disc 4:
Eine Alpensinfonie, opus 64 (1915)
Festliches Präludium, Opus 61 (1913)
Disc 5:
Metamorphosen (1944)
Vier letzte Lieder (1949) (Melanie Diener, soprano)
Oboe Concerto (1945) (Simon Fuchs, oboe)
Disc 6:
Sinfonia Domestica, Opus 53 (1903)
Parergon, Opus 73 (1925) (Roland Pöntinen, piano)
Disc 7:
Don Quixote, Opus 35 (1897) (Thomas Grossenbacher, cello)
Romance in F major (1883) (Thomas Grossenbacher, cello)
Serenade in E flat major, Opus 7 (1881)
Recorded: CD1: January 2000 CD2: January 2001 CD3: January-February 2001 CD4: February 2002 CD5: May 2002 CD6: May 2002 CD7: January 2000 (Serenade), February 2003 (Don Quixote & Romance)
Venue: Tonhalle Zurich
ARTE NOVA 74321 98495-2 [7CDs: CD1=65.27, CD2=74.28, CD3=65.48, CD4=52.36, CD5=76.25, CD6=65.29, CD7=59.05]

Fresh from their successful Beethoven cycle, which was most enthusiastically received, David Zinman and his Zurich Orchestra turn now to this substantial compilation of the works of Richard Strauss.

The new recording includes both early pieces and music from Straussís famous ĎIndian summerí. Throughout the project there is no question that the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra play particularly well, while the Arte Nova engineers have produced an atmospheric acoustic and a suitably opulent sound quality. This is of course a combination which is entirely right for this composer.

Among the earlier and less celebrated works Macbeth is by far the finest; in fact it deserves a regular position in the repertory. Zinman certainly has the music's measure, generating real tension and momentum as the drama unfolds. The brass are perfectly balanced against the remainder of the ensemble, and the climaxes are potent indeed. Anyone who enjoys the work's contemporary masterpiece, Don Juan, will enjoy this, and will find the music revelatory.

Aus Italien is somewhat earlier, and here the teenage composer is less assured than he was to became in his twenties. That said, the picture-postcard quality of the work is never unappealing, though the musical argument hardly sustains a work lasting a full forty-five minutes. In these circumstances it is tempting to suggest that the performers might have benefited from extra rehearsal time before committing the music to disc, since it needs all the polish it can get.

The disc combining Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel and Also Sprach Zarathustra contains three major masterpieces, of course. Yet there is no reason to be less than enthusiastic about this version, which again shows the Swiss orchestra and their American conductor on excellent form, aided by the rich and resonant Arte Nova sound.

The performance of Don Juan has a real sweep of momentum. Although the opening does not have quite the élan of either Rudolf Kempe (EMI) or Herbert von Karajan (DGG), the attack and keenly articulated ensemble remain of a high order. The solo oboe is delicately coloured in the lyrical episode, with the tempo perfectly judged. The only real disappointment is perhaps the great climax featuring the horn section, since this seems a little under-powered.

Till Eulenspiegel is one of those pieces so rich in detail that the problem can easily become one of how to maintain a longer-term view across the entire span. There are no such dangers for Zinman here, since he is so successful in reconciling the different aspects of this most illustrative of narrative tone poems. The highlight, as Strauss surely intended it must be, is the final scene of the hanging, which is thrilling in its rhythmic confidence and precision.

Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of the largest of these symphonic poems, and Zinman paces his performance very well indeed. The famous sunrise opening is recorded amid a sensitively drawn atmospheric range, although the organ sounds under-powered rather than bringing a really climactic effect. After that, however, the ebb and flow of the complex lines of development are expertly paced, and the sensitively drawn final section is particularly satisfying. At the Arte Nova super bargain price, this represents a very competitive issue, both in the single issue and among the larger collection.

The coupling of the massive orchestra of the Alpine Symphony with the even more massive orchestra of the Festival Prelude, makes for an attractive combination. Strauss composed the Alpine Symphony during 1914-15, some ten years after the completion of his previous large-scale orchestral work, the Sinfonia Domestica. This state of affairs had everything to do with his successes in the opera house, of course.

In the Alpine Symphony there is an enormous orchestra, including quadruple woodwind and brass, an abundance of percussion instruments, wind and thunder machines, and even a 'distant' ensemble plus an organ. All this is a reflection of the resources Strauss lived with and had come to expect in contemporary Germany.

The intention was to translate into music his impression of a journey on foot in the Bavarian Alps, a choice of subject which was no doubt inspired by his enthusiasm for his new villa at Garmisch, built out of the profits he had made from Salome. Strauss uses his supreme skills as a musical illustrator in evoking every detail of his environment. The progress of the mountain tour is reflected in the structure - rising to an ascent and then gradually descending again - as well as in the manner in which the themes develop. His mastery of the orchestra is heard to magnificent effect, and he knew it: 'Now at last I have learned to orchestrate', he said.

There is no question that Zinman has the measure of the scope and scale of this work. There is always a clear sense of direction and a well articulated phrase structure. What is less certain is the recorded sound, which ultimately lacks a certain degree of bloom in the string sound, something which in this of all works is an important issue. It remains the case, however, that the listener is swept along by the colour and even the sheer grandeur of the music, though rival versions by the likes of Karajan (DG), Kempe (EMI) and Solti (Decca) offer greater opulence.

The same might be said also for the Festive Prelude. This occasional piece was written in order to precede a special performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony on the occasion of the consecration of the Konzerthaus in Vienna, in October 1913.

This building was constructed on a lavish scale, the largest of its three halls designed to accommodate an audience of four thousand, and in these circumstances Strauss felt compelled to rise to the occasion and on the grand scale too. He opted for some imposing contrasts: as large a string body as possible, huge wind and brass sections with at least six (but if possible 12) onstage trumpets, supported by the full weight of the organ.

In the light of this it is hardly surprising that the Festival Prelude has remained an 'occasional piece', impressive and imposing by virtue of its sheer scale and grandeur. Inevitably it proves so in this new recording, even if the more powerful passages sound a little strained. There are abundant compensations, as Zinman and his enlarged orchestra rise to the challenge this epic work presents.

Disc five collects music from what is rightly described as Straussís ĎIndian summerí: Metamorphosen for string orchestra, the Oboe Concerto, and the celebrated Four Last Songs. As far as the credibility of the collection as a representative Strauss orchestral compilation is concerned, some serious questions arise here, whatever the quality of the performances. For there seems a certain laziness in the planning if the Oboe Concerto is considered valid while the Second Horn Concerto and the Duet concertino (clarinet and bassoon) are not. Likewise the later pieces for large wind ensemble do not appear.

Having come so near to providing a complete Strauss collection, it seems a pity that there remains some distance before completeness is achieved. The other major omissions are at the earlier end of the Strauss canon: works such as the First Horn Concerto and the Burleske for piano and orchestra.

Back to the disc featuring the later music in performances that continue the high standards found elsewhere. Zinman can have every reason to be proud of the richly sonorous performance of Metamorphosen, one of the composerís most deeply felt and keenly articulated compositions. So too the Oboe Concerto is most sensitively performed, with an excellent balance, well recorded, between the solo of Simon Fuchs and the string orchestra.

In the celebrated Four Last Songs Melanie Diener is a satisfying soloist, recorded in excellent balance with a sensitively drawn solo part. If to some extent her performance seems under-characterised, it is probably because the microphone does not unduly favour her, while the personality of her vocal tone is less distinctive than some of her celebrated rivals. That said, let us remember that a good definition of a masterpiece is that it is greater than any single performance of it. And Dienerís performance certainly does give satisfaction.

Disc 6 has an appropriate combination: the Sinfonia Domestica that Strauss completed while on holiday on the Isle of Wight, and the little known Parergon for piano and orchestra that Strauss built out of its musical material, more than twenty years later. The progress of the Domestica seems hampered by the indulgence of a large tone poem created out of the composerís domestic circumstance. Yet the music itself explores ground unexpectedly satisfying from so routine a source, including some of Straussís most glorious and radiant orchestral opulence. Zinman and his orchestra relish their opportunities, while the phrasing and tempi always seem just right.

The Parergon is more problematic, though Roland Pöntinen is a skilful soloist, always in command. If the music adds up to less than the sum of its parts, this may be the result of listening to it in the reflected glory of greater masterpieces. Therefore the domestic listener, having acquired the whole set, might care to afford this disc a special and careful attention.

The final disc (disc 7) is dominated by one of the greatest of the symphonic poems: Don Quixote. Weighed against Rostropovich or Tortelier, Thomas Grossenbacher is a smaller personality, but his playing has plenty of bight and a character of its own that makes the performance hugely rewarding too. Yet again the Arte Nova engineers do justice to Straussís wonderfully colourful orchestral world. The variations move onwards compellingly, the performance therefore more than the sum of its parts.

Grossenbacher fares well also in the little known Romance, an early work lurking on the fringes of the Strauss repertoire. The music is slighter than in Don Quixote, of course, but the results remain idiomatic and satisfying. The collection also finds space for the early Wind Serenade, Opus 7. This too has its own particular brand of personality, aided by good recorded sound and a clear, unfussy performance style. For here as elsewhere in this ambitious collection, Zinman shows how much he knows and loves the music. While this is by no means the only consideration for the prospective purchaser, neither should it be ignored. Romantic music, expressively and sensitively performed, will inevitably brings its rewards, and so it proves.

Seven CDs is undoubtedly a major collection. There will inevitably be some frustrations that the enterprise was not more thorough in terms of repertoire, and as discussed, there are some howling omissions. Having made the point, let me conclude by acknowledging the high standards of performance and recording that lie at the heart of this set. While there may be a few regrets that it is not as comprehensive as it might (as it ought to?) have been, what we do have is undoubtedly well worth having.

Terry Barfoot



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