Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Rosenkavalier-Suite AV 145 [25:05]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Op. 28* [16:40]
Vier letzte Lieder AV150** [21:29]
**Anja Harteros (soprano)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. Herkulessaal, des Residenz, Munich 19-20 October 2006; *5-6 March 2009; Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich **25-27 March 2009
BR KLASSIK ARCHIVE 900707 [63:33]

This is, I believe, one of several CDs originally issued in 2009 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Here we find the orchestra working with the charismatic conductor who has been their Chief Conductor since 2003. A few years ago I was fortunate to attend a concert at Symphony Hall, Birmingham in which Jansons led this orchestra in a programme that included a memorable Brahms Second Symphony and an equally splendid Don Quixote by Strauss. My appetite thus whetted, I was keen to hear a whole CD devoted to Strauss from this team.

The reading of Till Eulenspiegel certainly lived up to my expectations. This is a virtuoso piece and here it comes abundantly to life in the hands of a virtuoso orchestra and conductor. Jansons characterises the music sharply but never in a way that seems unnatural or done simply for effect. Till’s capers are vividly etched and the predominant mood is one of high jinks, which makes the drums and menacing fanfares that presage his execution seem all the more shocking - the increasingly despairing interjections by the principal clarinet, as Till, are extremely effective during this passage. Jansons makes the coda a touching reminiscence of Till, reassuring us that he was harmless, before delivering the final pay-off with panache.

Anja Harteros won the 1999 Cardiff Singer of the World competition and has since gone on to have an important career. She’s a good exponent of Strauss’s wonderful last gifts to the soprano voice. In ‘Frühling’ her voice soars imperiously over the orchestra and she copes well with the very wide range of the vocal line. She produces some lovely sounds also in ‘September’ although here, as elsewhere in the performance, a fairly generous vibrato does sometimes compromise the clarity of the words. Jansons and his orchestra cushion her voice on a gorgeous, glowing accompaniment and the golden horn solo near the end is the icing on the cake. It’s not all that often that the violinist who plays the glorious solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ is credited. On this occasion, however, Andreas Röhn is named, and rightly so for his playing is luminous. As his solo comes to an end Miss Harteros resumes centre-stage. The vocal line at ‘Und die Seele unbewacht’ is one of the most rapturous phrases that I know in all music and Anja Harteros doesn’t disappoint. Finally, ‘Im Abendrot’ is deeply felt and intense. Miss Harteros’s singing is beautifully controlled, the line steady at all times. Once again, the orchestral contribution is superb and the lovely, extended postlude is expertly sustained, the music etched in russet and gold. This live performance of Vier letzte Lieder is a rewarding one even if, in the last analysis, it doesn’t surpass some of my own favourite readings, such as those by Soile Isokoski, Elisabeth Söderström or Lisa della Casa.

The disc opens with an exuberant, utterly delicious account of the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. The playing offered here is quite outstanding - the magnificent sound of the horn section in the first couple of minutes establishes the overall level of accomplishment that is to follow. Though the extrovert side of the music is brought out thrillingly, Jansons is just as adept at catching the mellow nostalgia. The music from the Presentation of the Silver Rose scene is rather second-best without a pair of soaring, ecstatic voices but on this occasion the glorious orchestral playing almost makes one forget the absence of singers. The series of waltzes (from 10:14) is winningly delivered with just the right amount of Viennese schmaltz; the music is idiomatically inflected. At 16:35 we hear music from the great trio near the end of the opera and from this point on the performance moves to an even higher level of distinction. The climactic passage between 19:34 and 20:40, crowned by the effortlessly regal horn section, is sumptuous. After this, the brief reference to the final duet between Sophie and Octavian is affectionately touched in before one last, ripe waltz - including a final reminder of those fabulous Bavarian horns - brings down the curtain on a memorable performance. When he’s on this sort of form is it any wonder that Mariss Jansons is so widely rated as one of the world’s leading conductors?

All three performances are captured in excellent sound, which further enhances the super-fine quality of the orchestral playing. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the documentation. Frankly, it’s sub-standard. There are lengthy notes about the soloist, conductor and orchestra and barely a mention of the music itself. No texts or translations are provided. All of which serves ill anyone buying this disc who is unfamiliar with the contents of the programme. That deficiency apart, this is a fine and well-chosen programme, which will give collectors a great deal of pleasure.

John Quinn

A fine and well-chosen Strauss programme, which will give collectors a great deal of pleasure.