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
rec. Avery Fisher Hall, New York, March and September-October
GRAMMOPHON 4776435 [73:24]
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.
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.
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.
puzzling but - to coin an oxymoron - consistent inconsistencies
mark all these Strauss performances, along with some good things.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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