Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra [33:56]
Don Juan [17:13]
Till Eulenspiegel [14:52]
Metamorphosen [28:58]
Tod und Verklärung [24:20]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. Lukaskirche Dresden, June 1987 (Zarathustra), August 1987 (Don Juan), February 1989 (Till Eulenspiegel, Metamorphosen, Tod und Verklärung)
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD050 [51:19 + 68.16]

This two-disc set contains much of Strauss’s finest orchestral music, played by an orchestra closely associated with the composer throughout his life and beyond. As with their Bruckner performances, these reissues from the 1980s find the orchestra and their Swedish-American conductor Herbert Blomstedt at the peak of their form. Likewise the original Denon recordings sound splendid in their new incarnations.

To confirm this enthusiastic response, there could be no start more compelling than the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra, a showcase for the orchestra and recording engineers if ever there was one. It is intriguing to compare recordings in this music, with issues such as the release of dynamic range and the particular sound of the timpani and the organ making all the difference from one performance to another. While there is no one performance that is ‘the right way’, this one, in common for example with André Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips), makes the music sound as if it could not possibly be otherwise. To be sure, the Blomstedt recording brings much sonic satisfaction.

From this impressive opening Blomstedt and his players are sensitive to every nuance of Strauss’s sophisticated score. In particular the subtle web of divided strings in ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ is a miracle of controlled shadings and dynamics, while at the other extreme the rich-toned climaxes of the ‘Tanzlied’ are extraordinarily impressive. If the ebb and flow of the music uses in some indulgent ritardandos, this seems wholly in keeping with the score’s nature.

Don Juan follows on disc one, a suitably ardent cavalier from bar one. Again the orchestral balance is admirably projected, while the contrasting feminine aspect of the work features as fine an oboe solo as one could wish to hear. This music is well represented on CD, by the likes of Rudolf Kempe (EMI), Bernard Haitink (Philips), Karl Böhm (DGG) and Giuseppe Sinopoli (DGG), but Blomstedt and the Dresden orchestra stand proudly among this exalted company.

Likewise Till Eulenspiegel offers a platform for the Dresden Staatskapelle to state their case as one of the great Strauss orchestras. With its closely narrative style this piece asks a great deal of individual players, and they do not disappoint. The horn and clarinet, for example, are peerless in their control and imagination, while the ensemble projection of the panic and excitement as Till rides headlong through the crowds is nothing short of thrilling.

Metamorphosen, written for Paul Sacher’s Zürich Collegium Musicum, is altogether different from these tone poems for large orchestra. Subtitled ‘Mourning for Munich’, it represents the composer’s response to the destruction of the Germany he knew and loved as the result of the Second World War. The world Strauss had known all his long life lay in ruins.

The eighty-year-old composer sought consolation in creativity. Metamorphosen is a 'study for twenty-three solo strings'. It is an elegy which surely ranks as one of his finest compositions as well as one of the supreme examples of the triumph of the sensitive human spirit in time of adversity. An extended Adagio unfolds in a rich and often complex polyphony, with the ebb and flow of more agitated contrasting statements enhancing the nostalgic search for consolation. This fine Dresden performance captures its every nuance.

The collection is completed by yet another magnificent performance. Blomstedt’s Tod und Verklärung exudes a strong sense of the music's shape and structure, with particularly well chosen tempi and a burning intensity in the climaxes, with the Transfiguration theme making a huge impression on its various appearances.

Terry Barfoot

This set contains much of Strauss’s finest orchestral music, and these reissues from the 1980s find the Dresden orchestra and Herbert Blomstedt at the peak of their form.