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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
CD 1
Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1897) [40.44]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1895) [14.41]
Der Rosenkavalier: Waltzes (1910) [18.36]
CD 2
Metamorphosen (1945) [28.39]
Capriccio: Sextet (1941) [10.14]
Die Frau ohne Schatten: Symphonic Fantasy (1946) [22.04]
Feuersnot: Love Scene (1901) [5.59]
Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils (1905) [9.51]
Tibor de Machula (cello); Klaas Boon (viola); Theo Olof (violin)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, April-May 1974 (Don Quixote). ADD
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, June 1960 (Till Eulenspiegel) and September 1960 (Rosenkavalier). ADD
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra/Karl Münchinger
rec. Schloss Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart, June 1971 (Capriccio). ADD
Staatskapelle Dresden/Giuseppe Sinopoli
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, December 1994 (Metamorphosen) and May 1995 (Die Frau ohne Schatten, Feuersnot, Salome). DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ELOQUENCE 480 0478 [74.22 + 77.18]
Experience Classicsonline


I’ve reviewed some fine Strauss over the past two years, not least Kent Nagano’s DVD of Ein Alpensinfonie (see review) 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 Metamorphosen.

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 disturbing.

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 contributions.

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 at.

Dan Morgan

see also review by William Hedley


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