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CD: Buywell

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
CD 1
Sinfonia Domestica (1904), Op. 53 [45:47]
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. Royce Hall, University of California (UCLA), Los Angeles, May 1968. ADD
Parergon zur Sinfonia Domestica for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra, Op. 73 (1924) [21:17]
Gary Graffman (piano), Vienna Philharmonic/André Previn
rec. Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, November 1995. DDD
CD 2
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1915) [48:07]
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. Royce Hall, Los Angeles, May 1975. ADD
Macbeth, Op. 23 (1891) [19:38]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
rec. United Artists’ Auditorium, Detroit, October 1982. DDD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0408 [67:10 + 67:55]
Experience Classicsonline

This Eloquence release unites a collection of Strauss recordings from the 1960s to the 1990s.  None of them is a classic, but there’s a lot to enjoy here and this is a good way to collect this music at an attractive price.
To start at the chronological beginning, Antal Dorati treats Macbeth as a work of youthful genius.  Far from telling the story of Shakespeare’s play, Strauss’s tone poem is more of a character study of Macbeth and his Lady.  Their themes are laid out in contrast to one another, while battle music rears its head from time to time. At the climax the battle music overwhelms them both and the disintegration of their two themes is rapid in the way it depicts their fall.  Dorati treats Macbeth with stormy turbulence, while he brings a lush lyricism to Lady Macbeth’s music.  Their disintegration at the end is incisive and powerful, while their collapse leaves their themes sounding quite pathetic.  The digital sound is close but warm.
Mehta’s Alpensinfonie is a bit of a mixed bag.  The initial sunrise section is underwhelming and there is no sense of awe when the mountain’s theme first rumbles in the brass.  However, it grows in stature once the climb begins, thanks mostly to the LA horns who really shine in this performance.  The launch of the climbing theme in the Ascent section is thrustful and urgent, and it remains so every time it reappears, even after it is inverted.  The entry into the woods is dark and majestic, but then lightens with some lovely string tone.  The brook scene is pastoral and quite playful, while the skittery strings are quite remarkable in the apparition at the waterfall.  The cowbells on the meadow are a little difficult to make out. This is thanks in part to the way they are placed. The arrival on the summit isn’t nearly as radiant as it should be, though the horns – again - make up for this in the climactic Vision.  The tension before the storm is well controlled by Mehta, but, when it breaks, the storm itself is rather tame and passionless.  So, perhaps unusually, this is an Alpensinfonie where the most successful moments are the quieter ones, such as the reflectiveness of the final Ausklang, and the solemn beauty of the final night sequence.  Fine, but it doesn’t stand up to more recent competition, not least from Jansons and the Concertgebouw.
It’s in the Sinfonia Domestica that you’ll find most to enjoy here.  It’s best not to analyse Strauss’s motivation too much here otherwise, as in Heldenleben, you’d be cutting yourself off from some great music for the sake of an academic smugness.  Regardless of how self-regarding Strauss may or may not have been, this reflection of his family life is lots of fun.  There is a pleasing familial bustle to the opening in this performance, and Mehta keeps the strings busy in their depiction of the household’s routine.  Bubi was the nickname for the Strausses’ young son Franz, and his father givens him a lovely oboe d’amore solo for his theme.  The scherzo represents the boy at play, but here it feels more graceful than playful: hard to know if this is Strauss’s compliment to his son or Mehta’s shaping of the score.  If the horns were the stars of Alpensinfonie then the LA strings are the stars of Sinfonia Domestica, playing with honeyed tone throughout.  The lullaby in the third movement is beautifully seductive and the clock strikes at just the right pitch and volume.  The string surge and tumble in the tumultuous love scene, like the thrustful love music of Heldenleben and Rosenkavalier.  Very Straussian horns punctuate their dreams, while we hear glowing brass in a triumphal conclusion.  The analogue sound places a lovely bloom around the orchestra which prevents the whole work from sounding too monumental.
The oddity here is the Parergon zur Sinfonia Domestica.  Parergon means “complement”.  In 1924 Strauss’s son, Franz (Bubi), suffered a severe attack of typhus and nearly died.  His illness and recovery gave Strauss the idea of building a composition around Franz’s theme from Sinfonia Domestica but giving it a darker hue to depict his illness and then later resolving it happily to depict his recovery.  The work also served as his response to a commission from Paul Wittgenstein, the famous pianist who had lost his right arm in the First World War and who commissioned equally famous works, such as Ravel’s concerto for the left hand.  The opening of the piece surges with passionate intensity worthy of Don Juan, and the playing from both piano and orchestra is very virtuosic – one might almost say chaotic.  One of the highlights is a really beautiful clarinet theme about 13 minutes in, which is then worked vigorously by the piano into a full orchestral celebration of Franz’s youth.  The piano and orchestra complement each other very well here and the digital sound is very clear.
For some collectors the Parergon might be a good enough reason in itself to buy this set, but most will agree that it’s a novelty worth investing in and listeners new to any of these works won’t be disappointed with what they hear.  The budget price undeniably helps.
Simon Thompson
Review index for Strauss symphonies and tone poems


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