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CD: Buywell

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
CD 1
Burleske in D minor for piano and orchestra (1890) [19:04]
Duet-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon (1948) [19:42]
Concerto for Oboe and small orchestra (1946) [25:07]
CD 2
Aus Italien op 16 (1887) [41:48]
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1918) [35:31]
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. Gewandhaus Leipzig, September 2004. DDD
Dmitri Ashkenazy (clarinet); Kim Walker (bassoon)
Gordon Hunt (oboe)
Radio-Symphonie Orchester, Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, December 1991; January 1991. DDD
Cleveland Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, July 1990. DDD
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, October 1966. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0404 [64:09 + 77:32]
Experience Classicsonline

It seems sad somehow to sit down and pen this review in the aftermath of recent announcements about Decca, one of the great names in recording history. True the inspiration of Australian Eloquence has done much to revive areas of their back catalogue - this to the delight of many older collectors - with the judicious re-issue of classic material that Universal seemed unwilling to let out of its clutches. The recordings are marked by sound artistic judgement coupled with vivid yet ingratiating sound technology.
My colleagues elsewhere in these pages have been delighted, I know, by the re-appearance - indeed appearance in some cases - on CD of delights from the likes of Ansermet, Kertesz, Masur and Mehta ... to name just the conductors who have particularly benefited. And if the present issue doesn’t perhaps quite fall into the category of unmitigated “delight”, I have nevertheless derived much pleasure from it.
Recordings over the two discs span almost 40 years – from Maazel’s mid-1960s Sofiensaal “Gentilhomme” to Thibaudet and Blomstedt’s “Burleske” from 2004. Even so, sound quality - as often with this label - despite different acoustics and production teams gives uniform pleasure.
Performances are a little more variable. Ashkenazy seems a little “plush” in Aus Italien. There doesn’t seem to be the incisiveness, youthful twinkle ... and, yes, sheer love and affection that I detect in Clemens Krauss’s interpretation - at least not through the medium of my ancient Eclipse pseudo-stereo LP (ECS 610). This is another Decca outing, although on this occasion with the VPO from the early 1950s. Indeed my colleague Gerald Fenech seems to agree – witness his review dealing with the mono CD re-issue of the performance on Testament (SBT1185).
The last movement, “Neapolitanisches Volksleben” for example, is given with such rollicking good humour by Krauss that it sounds as though Strauss was perfectly aware of the origins of his “folksong” – and frankly couldn’t give a damn. As it happens “Funiculi Funicula” had been composed by Luigi Denza ... and he was not amused by Strauss’s use of it; indeed he subsequently sued.
That said I shouldn’t ignore some fine playing from the Clevelanders, who sound particularly relaxed and luxuriant in the third movement “Am Strande von Sorrent”, the section of the score which seems to suit the team’s approach best. Initially I also thought the sound too “upholstered”, but re-hearing dispelled this view. The venue incidentally is not the more frequently used and somewhat dry Severance Hall, but the more generous acoustic of the Masonic Auditorium.
Whilst “Aus Italien” forms the bulk of Disc 2, the first CD concerns itself with concertante works, which come from either end of Strauss’s career.
Von Bülow called the “Burleske” unplayable, and despite my love of Strauss I must admit to not having heard it for a while. I thoroughly enjoyed Thibaudet’s traversal; plenty of wit and point and a technique more than capable of coping with Strauss’s coruscating pianism. It may be, to quote Tim Ashley - one of Strauss’ biographers - “a colossal joke”, but it’s one which here is dispatched with both feeling and aplomb.
Both the Oboe Concerto and Duet-Concertino are products of the composer’s last years. The former was written for American GI John de Lancie - a Pittsburgh Symphony player pre-war - whom Strauss got to know in Garmisch immediately following the end of hostilities. Although he didn’t premiere it in the end, he did secure exclusive US performance rights – which in itself must have given him great delight. Up to now I have particularly enjoyed the performances by Simon Fuchs and the Zurich Tonhalle (Arte Nova 74321 98495-2, 7 discs including the Tone Poems and miscellaneous fillers), as well as Manfred Clement and the Dresden Staatskapelle with Rudolf Kempe (the classic 3 disc EMI collection, forming Volume 1 of the orchestral music, 7 64342 2). True, their hegemony remains undisturbed, but Hunt and Ashkenazy nevertheless prove to be very creditable.
Personally I have even more affection for the Duet-Concertino, which a recent local music society presentation by Jonathan Burton - brother of Anthony and Humphrey - what a talented family! - only enhanced. True Jonathan used the classic recording by Manfred Weise and Wolfgang Liebscher under Kempe (as detailed above), where Weise’s first entry is quite heavenly, but as the work progressed I felt Dmitri Ashkenazy and Kim Walker entered the fantasy spirit of the piece even more strongly. Although Strauss never confirmed any extra-musical meaning he certainly hinted that Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Swineherd”, featuring a princess (clarinet) and a bear (bassoon), had provided inspiration. In the end I thought the more recent recording shaded it.
This only leaves the oldest recording of the five, Maazel’s Sofiensaal account of “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”.
Having had the Moliere-inspired success of Der Rosenkavalier Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal decided to return to the author for further inspiration. Their target was “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, or in their native tongue, “Der Burger als Edelmann”, with a view to the resulting work acting as a prelude to their new opera “Ariadne auf Naxos”.
Despite the resultant arguments and shelving of the project - Ariadne taking precedence - Strauss did not forget about the work altogether. He returned to it in 1917 composing extra numbers to accompany performances of the play. Alas Hofmannsthal nagged him again about an opera at which point Strauss’s patience failed and he withdrew – although never one to waste effort he rescued his music and published a nine movement suite in 1920.
Whilst Virgin, back in 1997, issued a fascinating set with “Gentilhomme” - complete with dialogue - in tandem with the original “Ariadne” of 1912 (that’s another story !), and based on a production at Lyon (7243-5-45111-2-7), most people, if they know the work at all, will be familiar with the suite. The love and affection for the music I found missing in the Cleveland “Aus Italien” I found in abundance here. This isn’t great music but the Vienna Phil really sound as though they care about it. Listen to cellist Emanuel Brabec’s phrasing of his solo in “Le Diner” and you’ll understand what I mean.
Any disadvantages? Only two; from time to time the VPO has sported a rather acidulous oboe sound – and this was one such period. Also, having star pianist Friedrich Gulda on hand it seems Gordon Parry and Erik Smith couldn’t resist a bit of spotlighting, so the piano is rather writ large. Still, I can’t say either factor worried me overmuch.
Overall then, a mixed bag, but with enough delights to make a very worthwhile issue. Meanwhile, Eloquence has issued other Strauss combinations recently. Look out for them. My guess is they’ll be equally worth acquiring.
Ian Bailey

see also review by Patrick Lam



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