This interestingly programmed CD begins with one of Strauss’s
most famous tone poems and ends with his grief-stricken final
masterpiece for strings. English conductor Jan Latham-Koenig
conducts the orchestra of which he was musical director for
six years in performances that have apparently been hanging
around for some time (the Don Juan has been previously
released on Avie - see review).
Sandwiched between these two works are rather more recent recordings
of a short series of Strauss songs, sung by British soprano
Joan Rodgers with Latham-Koenig at the piano.
The Lieder are very successful. Rodgers adopts a suitably
and affectingly dead tone when, at the end of Die Georgine,
the poet reminds us that love can be both joy and pain. The
impetuousness of new (and young) love is very attractively brought
out two songs later, in Begegnung, and her singing of
the wistful Rote Rosen is very touching. The most familiar
song in the group is probably Morgen! How beautifully
Strauss contrives this so that what the listener expects to
be the final phrase of the introduction becomes the first phrase
of the vocal line! And how gloriously this introduction, even
shorn of its orchestral garb, communicates the calm rapture
of the lovers’ stroll! Rodgers is very fine here, as she is
throughout the short recital. Her singing will bring much pleasure,
and she is most perceptively accompanied at the piano by Latham-Koenig.
The Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra is not one of the world’s
most celebrated ensembles – though it did receive the coveted
title of “orchestre national” in 1997 – but the playing
on this disc is outstanding. Inevitably the most taxing passages,
some stratospheric string writing in Don Juan in particular,
will be more fearlessly and faultlessly executed by groups from,
say, Berlin or Vienna. But listening to this performance on
its own terms will not disappoint. The conductor and orchestra
tear into the opening, the famous horn theme is as proud and
exuberant as you will hear it, and the reading as a whole is
as impetuous as one could wish.
Timings never tell the whole tale, to be sure, but they can
often be useful indicators. This performance of Strauss’s sublime
Metamorphosen is timed at not quite twenty-four minutes,
whereas in two other performances that may be taken as references,
Barbirolli just passes the twenty-seven minute mark and Giuseppe
Sinopoli takes more than twenty-eight and a half. The strings
of the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra produce a wonderfully
rich sound in this work, and their playing throughout is superb.
If there is a certain want of intensity when compared to the
two performances cited, this comes, I think, from the conductor’s
view of the piece. The work is usually seen as Strauss’s appalled
response to the post-war destruction of German culture and the
bombing of the Munich opera house in particular. Whether one
subscribes to that view, or as the booklet would have it, prefer
to give greater weight to Strauss’s reading of a particular
poem by Goethe, the elegiac nature of the music seems incontestable.
That very quality is in the background in this performance,
for which urgent, ardent and passionate would seem to be more
appropriate words. It is by no means an invalid view, and the
piece works very well, particularly in a performance as committed
and brilliantly executed as this one. I very much appreciate
this view, and though I wouldn’t want to hear the work like
this every time, this is most certainly a performance I will
come back to.
The recording is rich and detailed. The booklet contains a useful
essay on the music, the conductor and soloist, all in three
languages, plus the sung texts in German with an English translation.
Then one final point: had anyone asked me to produce this record,
I shouldn’t have chosen to follow Strauss’s bewitching portrait
of contented love with the dark despair of Metamorphosen.
It may be that the priapic nature of much of Don Juan
isn’t quite the thing either, but I’m sure it’s preferable.
Those who purchase this most enjoyable and satisfying CD might
want to programme their players accordingly if they decide to
listen to it all through.
Masterwork Index: Don