Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan (1889) [17:48]
Die Zeitlose [1:47]; Allerseelen [3:07]; Die Georgine [3:39]; Die Verschwiegenen
[1:02]; Begegnung [1:39]; Rote Rosen [2:30]; Die erwachte Rose [3:07]; Morgen!
Metamorphosen (1945) [23:55]
Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra/Jan Latham-Koenig (conductor and piano)
rec. 10 August 2008, Henry Wood Hall, London (Lieder); 17-18 October 2001,
Palais de la Musique et Congrès, Strasbourg
AVIE AV2172 [63:24]
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.
An unusual programme and a very fine Strauss collection