Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1897) [43:35]
Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) [31:51]
Alwin Bauer (cello): Paul Schroer (viola)
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra [now WDR Symphony Orchestra]/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. 7 September 1959, Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne
MEDICI MASTERS MM035-2 [75:16]

Mitropoulos was a formidable Straussian, one who sought to bind any extraneous moments to the symphonic body of the argument. This makes for revealing listening in this brace of broadcast performances made in Cologne in September 1959. Mitropoulos was ailing by then, with about a year left to live. He’d suffered a severe heart attack in January but had recovered sufficiently to undertake performances again. Both items derive from the concert given in Saal 1 of the Funkhaus in Cologne with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, now known as the WDR Symphony Orchestra. And both performances have been released before.

There is a strong sense of cumulative integrity about his Don Quixote. It’s expressive, characterful, and burnished with mellifluous lyricism as one establishes from the outset, and as is reinforced by the phrasing in the Thema, when Quixote and Sancho Panza are both introduced. The Battle with the Sheep even evokes Zemlinskian fin de siècle phantasmagoria, the brass amalgam proving compelling in its stridency. There’s a raptly sustained Variation III, in which the strings – despite the slightly chilly studio sound – sing out with verve. As for the two soloists, Alwin Bauer (cello) and Paul Schroer (viola), they are the orchestra’s principals and thus show acute rhythmic perception. Where other starrier names might distend passages and lose impetus these two fine, though less tonally alluring musicians, ensure both that the tonal fabric is secure and integrated and that the metronome keeps ticking. Bauer has a noble profile and is unindulgent. The wind flurry in Wind VII is cinematically realised – highly realistic – and there’s a consummate apotheosis in Quixote’s death.

The companion work was Also Sprach Zarathustra. Drama-laced though it is, it’s not laid out for sonic spectacular approval by the conductor. He treats it less like a mosaic of gestures and more like a tightly constructed organism that repays the closest aural, timbral and intellectual investigation. He realises the joy at the heart of II, Of the Backworldsmen, and the deeply pondered contemplative depth of III (Of Great Longing). This is quite philosophically heavy in tread but Mitropoulos certainly manages to make contrasts in mood and feeling with acute judgement. Stern auditors might find that the latter part of the work gets just a touch bogged down rhythmically, but I think they would agree that Mitropoulos’s commitment is unflinching, powerful and predicated on threading the symphonic needle through the sections to present it as a cohesive whole.

Any interpretative caveats then are swept aside by the fulsome command and direction of the musicianship.

Jonathan Woolf