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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

 

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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, op 20 (1888) [18’27”]
Die Heiligen drei Königen, op 56, no.6 [6’10”]
Waldseligkeit, op 49, no 1 [3’06”]
Wiegenlied, op 41, no 1 [4’46”]
Morgen!, op 27, no 4 [4’03”]
Das Rosenband, op 36, no 1 [3’07”]
Meinem Kinde, op 37, no 3 [2’40”]
Befreit, op 39, no 4 [5’20”]
Macbeth, op 23 (1887) [19’48”]
Anne Schwanewilms (soprano) (Lieder)
Hallé/Mark Elder
Rec. BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester: 12-13 July 2004 (Macbeth), 22-23 September 2004 (Don Juan and lieder). Texts and translations included. DDD.
HALLE CD HLL 7508 [67’31”]

 

 

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 the problem.

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.

Evan Dickerson

 

 



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