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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character op. 35 (1897) [43:03]
Don Juan, symphonic poem op. 20 (1888) [16:00]
Antonio Janigro (cello), Milton Preves (viola)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 11April 1959, 6 December 1954, ADD
SONY/BMG 88697046042 [59:11]

A musical treat which despite its age still sounds remarkably good.

Among the avalanche of new material the prospect of a reissue, even of an acknowledged “classic performance”, does not always whet the appetite of the overwhelmed collector. However when the re-mastering is allied with a first appearance in a new format then perhaps curiosity may yet be kindled.
Reiner’s recordings of Richard Strauss orchestral music during the 1950s are still, for many, benchmarks in this repertoire. Quite apart from the superlative playing and authoritative interpretations some of the readings were amongst the earliest examples of stereo made widely available to the general public. “Also Sprach Zarathustra” actually kicked off the series of Strauss discs as far back as 1954, to be closely followed by the “Don Juan” included on the present issue.
Available on LP, tape and CD on numerous incarnations over the last fifty or so years these performances have graced the catalogue … indeed it would be much the poorer without them. Both in detail and overall conception they exude masterly insight into Strauss’s world, tremendously virtuosic but never for its own sake, with fantastic playing always at the service of the music. The tremendous sweep and fire of Don Juan for instance will rivet you to your seat, yet the scenes of wooing are as gentle and seductive as you could wish for …. albeit with an appropriate steely glint not too far in the background! Surely the return of the leaping horn and string motive near the end of the work is one of the great moments in all recorded music. Frankly if you care for Strauss and have not heard these - or Reiner’s other recordings for that matter - …do not delay!
But … even for those familiar with these treasures the question is bound to be begged ….. how do they sound in their new format ?
Firstly I have to report miracles have not been worked. Even with an SACD player and a multi-channel set-up you will not hear these recordings in full surround sound. Originally they were three track recordings, and that is how they are presented here: front left, centre and front right channels only are operable. In fact I listened to the SACD layer in conventional stereo, so my experience was not far removed from the optimum. Additionally I had a previous CD incarnation (09026-68170-2), and an LP issue (Camden Classics CCV 5051: of Don Juan only) for purposes of comparison. The results were interesting.
In a nutshell comparing CD and SACD was rather like comparing historic reissues from a comparative non-interventionist school and with one from a decided interventionist. The CD seemed more of the former stable; more open and freer at the top with, as a consequence, a somewhat less tractable treble.
This differential is particularly apparent in the taping of “Don Juan”, which as a recording hasn’t aged as well as the similarly venerable “Zarathustra”. Both are set in a reverberant acoustic and Don Juan has alas never been a completely “comfortable” listen in any format. The sound suffers from marked overload-type distortion in the brass and percussion, when going full pelt, which occasionally creeps into the strings as well. On the LP this is particularly apparent, and it’s not much improved on the CD.
However with the re-mastering for SACD there does seem to have been a real effort to combat this, and Don Juan at least sounds more “comfortable” than I had ever previously heard it. The string sound has been cleaned up, whilst the percussion are definitely easier on the ear. Only the brass, trumpets especially, still sound a mite congested, but even here there’s been an improvement.
The recording of Don Quixote meanwhile dates from some five years later and has never to my knowledge suffered such difficulties. Here I only had the CD for comparison and would say the contrast was subtler. Again the SACD sounded a little “darker”, more rounded in sonority, possibly losing a little openness at the top. Essentially, in this case, the differences could be summed up as …..“swings and roundabouts”.
Basically if you want to demonstrate your SACD equipment to the nth degree and wow your friends and neighbours with Richard Strauss you’ll probably look at more recent issues with full surround capabilities. If you do you will be missing a musical treat which despite its age, still sounds remarkably good.
Incidentally if you take the plunge and purchase this issue, be warned on one other technical point. Between 1954 and 1959 Reiner changed the layout of his Chicago orchestra. In the earlier recording the violins are split left and right, with violas and cellos between and the double-basses behind the cellos. By the Quixote sessions he was seating all the violins on the left, violas centre, cellos right and basses hard right. No need to fear that your equipment is playing tricks!
Ian Bailey


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