Suites and Fantasies from Operas & Ballet
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier Suite, Op. 59, TrV 227d [23:47]
Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten, TrV 234a [20:41]
Symphonic Fragment from Josephs Legende, TrV 231a [23:49]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Kleinhams Music Hall, Buffalo USA 31 March – 1 April 2008
NAXOS 8.572041 [68:17]
The great is the enemy of the good. A platitude I know but one of those that has more than a grain of truth in it. So it was rather unfortunate that the same packet that contained this disc for review also brought a disc by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing Richard Strauss that has knocked me sideways with its brilliance. In that company competence is simply not enough. JoAnn Falletta has been building a strong reputation with her Buffalo players and a sequence of discs on Naxos and other labels has been generally well received. Recently releases have seen them loosing the shackles of being an “American band for American music” (it always drives any self-respecting musician nuts when they become pigeon-holed like that) and moving into more mainstream repertoire. This should not be any real surprise since the core repertoire is the bread and butter of any orchestra’s season. But it does beg the question whether on the world stage they have a particular take on the music that demands attention. As performed here I would have to say as far as Richard Strauss is concerned – no.
However, do not leap to any negative assumptions, this is a perfectly well played, well (in the main) engineered and adequately interpreted CD of some stunning music. Sadly, though that is all it is. The flaws are three as I hear it. Firstly, Falletta does not have the natural quasi-vocal rubato absolutely vital for pieces that are essentially theatrical. All too often a tempo is set and the variation around that mean tempo feels neither convincing or emotionally engaged. Just one for instance – 16:00 into the Rosenkavalier selection - track 1 – the most famous and greatest moment in the opera the Act III, Trio: Hab's mir's gelobt – where is the “smiling through tears” emotion and cathartic release of its climax? Or the very opening of the same piece capturing the bustling Viennese court leading to the exultant horn whoops – good horns in Buffalo (no pun intended – its true) but the basic tempo is just too slow. Try that great Straussian Norman del Mar on a venerable Classics for Pleasure disc (CD-CFP 4552) – the LPO set off at a cracking pace and are swept to the horn-led climax (Nicholas Busch - one assumes - as resplendent as ever) before plunging onto into the extraordinary melodic riches of this compelling score.
Given this preference for a certain squareness of utterance perhaps it is not surprising that Falletta is at her best in the ballet derived Josephs-Legende. The final grand peroration as Joseph ascends into Heaven is powerful – not totally surprising given that Strauss calls for an orchestra including six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, quadruple woodwind including a contrabass clarinet, harps, celesta, piano, organ and expanded strings – but again I find myself admiring it, not overwhelmed as surely I should be. Compared to Sinopoli in his complete recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 463 493-2) the orchestra does not expand to fill this gigantic space. Which leads me onto the second major flaw; for all its qualities the Buffalo Philharmonic is not world class. This is particularly apparent in the strings whom, as recorded, cannot produce the wall of tone these opulent scores require. The playing is fleet, nimble and accurate but it lacks that saturated intensity (don’t mistake that for meaning uniformly loud) that the best orchestras possess. Woodwind solos are taken tastefully and elegantly but again lack the personality to transport the listener. Finally, the brass are clearly a fine group of players but I don’t hear an integrated sound that again can expand effortlessly, seemingly limitlessly, into the many epic Straussian climaxes. To paraphrase Spinal Tap – they can’t go to 11! Which leads me to the third and final flaw; Tim Handley has engineered many successful discs for Naxos and other companies. I do not count this as one of his best. Perhaps the venue is relatively unfamiliar or it was the sheer scale of the orchestrations involved, but the sound here is not as detailed or well balanced as many of his other discs. Worst affected is Der Rosenkavalier the strings sounding positively recessed but with odd spotlighting on solo lines. Things improve considerably through the other two suites but given that these sessions were on consecutive days I find it hard to believe that the microphone rig changed as much as it sounds like it did.
Of course there are positives. As ever the Naxos price advantage is a major consideration. Each of these works is available elsewhere in frankly significantly better versions but this particular coupling is unique. Rosenkavalier is a masterpiece and this twenty-four minute traversal of it is well constructed. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an opaque work at the best of times. A symbolic plot of bafflingly complexity allied to terrifyingly taxing vocal parts has meant that it has never conquered the repertoire so a suite like this is a perfect way of sampling the piece. Falletta is better than an uninspired Barenboim (coupled to a similarly disappointing Alpine Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Erato) but far less theatrical than Karl-Anton Rickenbacher and his rather good Bamberg Symphony (who are better recorded to boot) on Koch Schwann (3-6533-2) Josephs-Legende is one of those pieces where you feel that Strauss’ inspiration was deserting him hence the substitution of orchestral trickery to cover the cracks left by thematic paucity. They are pretty good tricks though and for those who enjoy a romantic wallow in musical technicolour this might well be the piece for you. It does need a Kempe (EMI CMS 7 64346 2) or a Sinopoli to provide the musical sleight of hand that convinces you of greatness where otherwise it might not exist.
I felt that the Wit/Weimar Staatskapelle Alpine Symphony (Naxos 8.557811) was one of Naxos’ finest discs to date and since they have followed this up with a fine Four Last Songs and an impending Symphonia Domestica, which I am eager to hear, I am sorry that they did not entrust that team with this repertoire.
A serviceable disc that does little to further the reputation of the artists involved

Nick Barnard