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! [4:07]
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.

William Hedley

An unusual programme and a very fine Strauss collection