I’ve reviewed some fine Strauss over the past
two years, not least Kent Nagano’s DVD of Ein Alpensinfonie
and, more recently, Heather Harper’s Four Last Songs
and assorted Strauss lieder (see review).
Both show the composer at his finest, rich, eloquent, thrilling.
Now comes another kind of Eloquence, a compilation of Strauss
tone poems and excerpts culled from Universal’s back catalogue.
Bernard Haitink and Giuseppe Sinopoli are seasoned Straussians
but Eugen Jochum and Karl Münchinger? I have my doubts, but
at least the range of music on offer here is very tempting indeed.
Haitink – now 80 – produced some fine Strauss
discs for Philips in the 1960s and 1970s. The tone poems were
singled out for special praise, although I have to admit I’ve
never understood why. A rather dour Heldenleben at the
Proms some years ago and various Mahler performances – live
and on record – have left me distinctly underwhelmed.
So, what does he make of this whimsical work?
As William Hedley pointed out in his recent review
the success of Don Quixote rests on the quality of the
three soloists. No problems there, as these Concertgebouw players
are very fine indeed. Particularly important is the cello, closely
associated with the Don throughout. I was immediately struck
by the generosity and warmth of the playing. The 1970s recording
has plenty of body and detail, the Don’s vision of Dulcinea
suitably intoxicating. And then Tibor de Machula introduces
this chivalric old buffer, the bass clarinet and tenor tuba
announcing his bumbling sidekick, Sancho Panza.
There is an inner glow to Haitink’s reading which,
although it’s not as flamboyant as some, has plenty of poise
and personality. Perhaps that’s less of a virtue in the more
dramatic variations – such as the first, when the Don is borne
aloft by the windmill and dumped – but it soon becomes clear
that this is Haitink’s way with Strauss. As for the soloists
I particularly liked the subdued cello entry as the unseated
knight nurses his wounded pride. Down but not out, the deluded
Don takes on the massed armies of Alifanfaron in Variation 2,
eliciting some marvellous bleats from the orchestra; and in
Variation 3 Klaas Boon’s hectoring viola really takes issue
with de Machula’s lofty cello melodies.
There is much here that reminds me of the more
reflective moments in both Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio,
not to mention the nobility of Ein Alpensinfonie
and Ein Heldenleben. The Dutch brass are well blended
and, with the harps, they underpin the Don’s lofty dreams. It’s
all superbly done, and in the climaxes – not to mention the
sweeping orchestral entry of Variation 4 – the recording doesn’t
show its age at all. And who wouldn’t be moved by the disconsolate
lower brass and the Don’s sad cello tune as he recovers from
his assault on the hapless pilgrims? Contrast that with the
soaring climax in Variation 5, when he dreams of Dulcinea; here
the orchestra, like his imagination, really takes flight.
Again I was struck by Haitink’s ability to shape
this glorious music and imbue it with a genuine sense of ardour.
For a conductor who has failed to move me much in the past I
simply can’t fault him here. And what gorgeous harp glissandos
as Dulcinea appears in the knight’s fantasies, a musical version
of a filmic dissolve that works very well indeed. As for the
banal tunes of the wenches in Variation 6 Haitink makes it all
sound so spontaneous, helped by pin-sharp playing from the Concertgebouw.
I can just imagine the maestro’s normally inscrutable features
creasing in a smile at this point. And goodness, he whips the
orchestra into a veritable frenzy as the Don and Sancho Panza
are borne aloft on the wooden horse (Variation 7). This is immaculate,
disciplined playing, of great splendour and weight.
Variation 8, the river trip, ends with a heartfelt
song of thanksgiving before two monks – represented by a pair
of pious bassoons – are attacked and flee in Variation 9. The
last variation and finale are as rich and varied as anything
Strauss ever wrote, the pounding timps powerful but never overpowering.
Of course with this most autobiographical of composers one is
tempted to see Strauss/Quixote as the hero-idealist forced to
face up to harsh realities and even harsher critics; but even
in drooping defeat the cello finds a modicum of nobility and
strength that seems entirely appropriate.
How do you follow that, I wonder? Till’s jolly
japes with Eugen Jochum and the Concertgebouw, recorded in 1960,
couldn’t be more different. This is as virtuosic as it gets,
with splendid whooping horns to the fore. The recording is somewhat
boxy, the focus narrow, but it’s not too fierce except in some
of the tuttis. Tizzy cymbals aside this is vigorous stuff, culminating
in some grand perorations. Yes, it may be a bit overdriven but
the Concertgebouw don’t seem in the least bit fazed by Jochum’s
helter-skelter approach. If you like a more refined, less sinister,
account Karajan is probably your best bet (DG Originals 447
441). That said, some listeners will prefer Jochum’s more raffish
reading. Minor quibbles apart, this Till certainly gets
the adrenaline going.
The two waltz suites from Der Rosenkavalier
– possibly Strauss’s most luminous score – were also recorded
in 1960 but sound somewhat pinched compared with Jochum’s Till.
The first suite, which opens with the opera’s delectable overture,
is nowhere near as vibrant as Silvio Varviso’s classic Vienna
recording of excerpts from the opera (Decca 452 730). There
the WP horns are peerless and the music is infused with an elegance
and charm that is hard to beat. As for those echt-Viennese
rhythms they really do sound overdriven in Jochum’s hands. Add
to that wiry treble and a lack of bass weight and this first
suite is pretty much a write-off. The second suite doesn’t fare
much better – the louder passages sound glassy – but at least
there’s a redeeming bounce to the waltzes.
After those unpardonably rough performances from
Jochum the second disc opens with a sumptuous, smooth Metamorphosen,
Strauss’s lament for the destruction of Dresden. Written for
23 solo strings it’s one of the most haunting commemorative
pieces I know. Fittingly it’s played here by the Staatskapelle
Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli who, like Haitink, is not a
conductor I warm to - albeit for different reasons. All too
often in the concert hall and on disc I was perplexed by Sinopoli’s
tendency to pull the music out of shape. That was particularly
true of his Mahler, but then he did make amends with his fine
recording of Tannhäuser.
This Metamorphosen is a little too streamlined
for my tastes but there’s no denying the sheer warmth and overall
sheen of the Dresden strings. For all that, this reading is
curiously passionless, lacking in the emotional intensity and
cumulative power that characterises Klemperer’s classic Philharmonia
account (EMI Great Recordings of the Century 80003). No, if
you’re looking for a truly moving rendition of this work Sinopoli’s
is not the one to go for, even if it does benefit from superlative
digital sound. I’m perfectly willing to accept that fans of
this conductor, who worry less about his expressive liberties
than I do, will probably rave about this account. For me, though,
there are other performances that come much closer to capturing
the poignancy of this unique score.
Karl Münchinger’s Capriccio recording,
which dates from 1971, seems to be afflicted by a low frequency
rumble in the quieter passages. It’s not too intrusive, unless
you listen on headphones. The Stuttgart chamber players are
recorded in a rather dry acoustic and I couldn’t shake the feeling
that this conductor’s Strauss, like his Bach, is a little too
old-fashioned for modern tastes. That said, it’s played with
plenty of feeling, even if it lacks the gentle charm and transparency
of Strauss’s opera.
Sinopoli is much less controversial – for me
at least – when it comes to the glorious sounds of Die Frau
ohne Schatten. Here the music unfolds naturally, as a seamless
whole, mercifully free of expressive tinkering. As for the Dresden
band they are as rich and sonorous as one could hope for. The
recording it is detailed and wide-ranging – the massed strings
are especially fine – with a hint of house hardness in some
of the tuttis. Now this really is explicit, big-boned
Strauss playing with a recording to match It certainly goes
some way towards ameliorating my disappointment at this team’s
From Die Frau ohne Schatten, premiered
in 1919, we go back 18 years to the one-act Singgedicht
(sung poem) Feuersnot. The score is suffused with an
erotic heat – after all it celebrates the fires of sexuality,
restored after the young virgin Diemut surrenders to the sorcerer
Kunrad. The music all but bursts into flame at the close, in
what is yet another showstopper from Sinopoli and his orchestra.
But for real fin-de-siècle soft porn nothing comes close
to Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. Rarely has this
music sounded so abandoned, its sinuous beat so lascivious.
There is also more ambiguity here – Sinopoli reminds us that
the young Salome has some tender, sweet music, too – but if
Feuersnot restores and celebrates human sexuality Salome
revels in its destructive power. The orchestra’s unfailingly
cultured sound makes the depravity of this dance all the more
Is this another cracker from Eloquence? Well,
almost. I could have done without Jochum’s charmless Rosenkavalier
waltzes, Münchinger’s forgettable Capriccio and Sinopoli’s
cool Metamorphosen. Haitink’s Don Quixote is a
revelation, though, full of gentle humour and a touching sense
of human frailty. Sinopoli also won me over with his better
So, a well-chosen programme compromised by some
odd choices. Really, a single disc with Don Quixote, Feuersnot,
Die Frau ohne Schatten and Salome would have done
very nicely, thank you. Still, not a collection to be sneezed
see also review
by William Hedley