Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 [33:56]
Don Juan, Op. 20 [17:13]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 [14:52]
Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings [28:58]
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 [24:20]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. June and August, 1987 (CD1) and February 1989 (CD2), Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD050 [51:09 + 68:10]
Although I doubt it will apply to many visitors to this site, I do envy listeners and collectors encountering this repertoire for the first time. Personally, I do not find any Romantic orchestral music to be more exultant than some of the passages found in the great Strauss Tone Poems. And for the new collector on a limited budget to be able to have this pair of discs in superb sound performed by the orchestra with the ultimate Strauss pedigree at around £10.00 is almost too good to be true. But hang on a minute, the choice is more complicated than that – the bargain back catalogue is groaning with classic versions at knock-down prices, and the discerning collector digging around on the internet can find alternative superlative versions be they the blazing George Szell on Sony, Kempe (with the same orchestra as here) originally on EMI now under licence in a superb 9 disc set from Brilliant Classics for around £23.00 or a rather chaste modern view from Zinman and his Zurich Tonhalle players with 7 discs for about £20.00.
I’m an unrepentant OCSD – Obsessive Compulsive Strauss disorder – sufferer, similar to OCWD (the W is for Wagner) but with considerably less unpleasant social stigma attached. So I’ve all of those versions in my collection together with far too many others as well. So, do I need another version? – a clear no; but does this pair of discs add to my knowledge of the works? – a resounding yes. Havergal Brian, in his capacity as reviewer/columnist for Musical Opinion in 1937, wrote about a concert the Dresden Orchestra under Strauss gave at the Queen’s Hall; “the reason the Strauss works were played so glowingly, with such marvellous clarity, every bit of solo work given with ease and elasticity, is that the mentality of the Dresdeners dominates their technique.” I can lift that quote from 1937 and apply it here to perfection. To this day they have retained a uniquely lean powerful and distinctive sound. However, the political schisms of post-War Europe did mean that personnel of the orchestra from the 1940s through to the late-1980s remained resolutely Germanic in training and all-importantly sound. Whatever the social/ political disasters of the Cold War period, on a musical level it is hard not to feel that the corporate personality of all the Warsaw Pact countries’ orchestras remained clearly defined to the benefit of the music. Whatever gains there might be in terms of orchestral personality could be lessened by engineering and production of less than demonstration quality. Apart from any issues of interpretative merit what makes these two discs of particular interest is that they benefit from the best possible combination of very fine early digital recording supervised by Denon in performances from the very end of the communist regime. Indeed, the second disc seems to have been recorded only nine months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. At the time of their original release these were very much premium products with the highest performance and production values; those qualities shine through more than twenty years later.
Nobody purchasing these discs could be disappointed. The only real area of debate is Blomstedt’s chosen interpretative style. If I were trying to sum this up succinctly I would have to say I find him objective rather than ardent, particularly on the earlier disc of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Don Juan. The comparison with the earlier analogue Dresden performances from Rudolf Kempe are fascinating. Both use the famed Lukaskirche in Dresden as the recording venue. The earlier recordings, although good could never be thought of as in the best demonstration category – even in the CD transfer the engineering gave the playing just a fraction too much opaque resonance. In performance terms, in a major set of many superb highlights I have to say Kempe’s Also Sprach has always been my least favourite. Blomstedt is better here although the cumulative impact of this version does not thrill me as others do. I admire the superb playing, the rich sonority of the orchestra but the last ounce of exaltation is missing. Man resolutely not becoming Superman here. Things don’t get off to a great start with the agogic hesitation in the opening fanfare. This is one of my touchstone moments in any performance. I understand why orchestras delay the downbeat – the fractional hesitation allows the ensemble to steady and prevents any individual instrument speaking early. The trouble is that it is not what Strauss wrote – he clearly wants a semi-quaver/16th note to propel the energy forward. There is a simply superb live version form Karajan and his Berlin players on HDTT that I made one of my Discs of the Year last year. They fearlessly confront every musical hurdle – the sense of hearing such an extraordinary group of players performing on the very edge of failure is simply thrilling. By contrast Blomstedt’s Dresdeners sound safe. Wonderfully safe, magnificently secure, utterly untroubled yet fractionally bland. A couple of little instances; in the ravishingly lyrical Das Tanzlied section [track 8] the solo violin is a shade literal. Compare Karajan’s concert master who finds a smilingly winsome Viennese lilt. Denon’s recording is superb at filleting out the complexities of the scoring yet retaining a believable natural balance. At the opposite end of the drama scale is the marvellously apocalyptic tolling of the midnight bell that opens the final Nachtwanderlied. The score indicates a dynamic of fff. In the theatre of my mind the bell is both the midnight bell and some cataclysmic tocsin needing to be clangorous and fearful. Here it is beautiful. The same virtues/deficiencies – depending on your point of view - apply to pretty much all of the performances on both discs. Don Juan is superbly athletic and quite brilliantly played and again the recording reveals a host of fantastic detail. The balancing and voicing of the Dresden brass is exemplary and I love the way the lower strings attack their parts – it gives the orchestra huge energy from the bottom up. Great to hear the detail of the harp writing too. But compared to Kempe – who is a full minute faster overall than Blomstedt – this feels a little like a thirty-something Don Juan not the carefree ardent young lover. I absolutely understand why the slightly cool approach to the love music will appeal to listeners who feel that the sentiment in Strauss is all too often ‘milked’. However, from my point of view the character of both Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel as people is one of extraordinary extremes and excess. These are men who, as portrayed, do nothing by halves so to my mind a musical representation has to teeter on the edge of vulgarity. If a conductor allows an orchestra of the quality of Dresden or Chicago or Cleveland that kind of hedonistic free-rein the result can be overwhelming. The beautiful oboe melody at 6:40 is played to perfection and again Blomstedt prefers a gently caressed manner which here allows a chaste simplicity which is utterly beguiling but surely the impact of such simple beauty would be greater if that which came before felt utterly unleashed. The standout moment is the gloriously heroic horn fanfare – both Kempe and Blomstedt are good here but Kempe’s greater thrust and the mellower analogue recording tips the balance towards him.
The three works on the second disc again receive fine performances in very good sound. In context of the above it is no real surprise that Blomstedt’s Metamorphosen is one of the slower on record coming in at 28:58. If there were ever players able to sustain the saturated string writing at any tempo it is these Dresdeners. Again, although this version would grace any collection, I could not say I think it is the best – whatever that means. For some reason which I have not yet put my finger on, the final revelation of the Eroica funeral theme does not have the inevitability of the finest performances – this is a huge span of music and I am not sure Blomstedt handles the structure as assuredly as some. Death and Transfiguration receives the best performance on the two discs. However, for purely convulsing agonised wildness George Szell and his spectacularly virtuosic Clevelanders are still the best. But this is a terrifyingly driven performance in rather harsh early CBS/Sony stereo. Some of the playing on that disc is the musical equivalent of ‘shock and awe’. The Dresden players give little if anything to Cleveland in pure technical terms and the extra warmth – musically and technically – of the transfiguration passage is marvellous.
Although somewhat irrelevant to the current review I made a comparison which I found interesting. The third Denon disc of Strauss from this period was of Ein Heldenleben. This work features in both Kempe’s box set and on a more recent Dresden recording from Sony conducted by Fabio Luisi. I was curious to see how the sound of the Dresden orchestra had changed from 1970s Kempe via 1980s Blomstedt to 2007’s Luisi. The answer is remarkably little particularly after one has made allowances for changes in recording perspective. All the virtues recognised by Havergal Brian in the 1930s still hold good. This is an orchestra which is built on the rock-solid foundation of the lower sonorities in the ensemble. Any player will tell you chords are tuned from the bottom up and it is the bass end of an orchestra which defines the overall colour and tone of the whole.
This set represents an excellent bargain, although an investment of little more than another £12.00 will gain so many additional vintage performances in the Kempe set. For those who don’t like vulgarity to creep into their Strauss this might well be an ideal median point. For anyone interested in the myriad interpretational possibilities the choices here are valid and played and recorded beautifully if just the slightest bit staid. Not that it really matters in the context of this reissue – the liner-note is rather poor; timings given for both Don Juan and Metamorphosen being way out and clearly unrelated to these performances. An impression reinforced by the final line in the note which tells us we are about to listen to Bruckner’s Symphony No.4!
I prefer my Zarathustras more Superman-esque and my Don Juans and Tills Alpha-Males but these are versions to return to with pleasure.
see also review by Brian Reinhart