This is an enticing box, collated from Barenboim’s Teldec and Erato recordings made in the 1990s. I can’t recall hearing any of these when they were first released, so this promises to be an eventful ride. There’s no shortage of fine Strauss in the catalogue, but I must mention a desirable Eloquence set that includes stand-out performances of Don Quixote from Bernard Haitink and the Symphonic fantasy from Giuseppe Sinopoli (review). Haitink’s lofty, far-sighted Alpine Symphony for LSO Live – review – has few, if any, rivals, and Neeme Järvi’s Till and Heldenleben (Chandos) are equally distinguished.
With such competition Barenboim’s readings will have to be something rather special. On CD 1 his Don Quixote certainly starts well; it has all the necessary amplitude and three warm, lyrical soloists, but it lacks the gentle charm, wit and that all-too-human sense of frailty that Haitink delivers in abundance. Barenboim’s characters don’t leap off the page, as the Dutchman’s do, and the recording – although wide-ranging – is prone to hardness. That’s less of a problem in Don Juan, which is played with terrific energy and thrust; that’s all very well, but there’s a bluff, unsmiling quality to these readings that doesn’t invite a return visit.
On CD 2, the vaulting figures that announce Till are superbly caught, the recording just as revealing in quieter passages. There’s no doubting this is a virtuoso band on top form, Barenboim pointing rhythms most beautifully. These virtues aside that all-important sense of a larger narrative just isn’t there. So how does that other tale, Ein Heldenleben, fare? Rather well to start with; there’s some atmospheric horn playing, the critics’ scribbles are as acid as one could wish for, and Barenboim finds a wistful quality in the hero’s musings that’s most endearing. Battle is spectacularly joined – the sound is refined yet thrilling – and the noble finale is eloquently done. Nothing like the sweep and swagger of Järvi’s reading though, the radiant horn playing of the SNO and that final efflorescence simply glorious. Now that’s essential Strauss.
It seems a pattern is starting to emerge here; these are perfectly good performances – and well recorded – but those who prefer their Strauss to be more impulsive will find Barenboim a little too cautious and under-characterised. Also, I don’t think he has that sense of overarching structure, especially in Heldenleben, a criticism that doesn’t apply to Haitink’s magnificent Alpine adventure. CD 3 begins with Barenboim’s somewhat trepidatious climb; I would prefer more mystery at the outset, although the first big climax is wonderfully clear and spacious. That said, it’s just too prosaic, lacking the profound, spiritual dimension that Haitink finds in this multi-layered score.
As ascents go this is just too tame, all challenges and diversions much too easily dealt with; I hate to use the term perfunctory to describe a performance but that’s a pretty good description of this dull excursion. The descent is even less remarkable ‘Vision’ something of a misnomer in this context. The Symphonic Fantasy is also a let-down; despite a gorgeous colour palette there’s very little sense of underlying drama here. Sinopoli, a conductor I don’t usually warm to, is far more persuasive in this respect, the Dresden orchestra playing as if possessed. No qualms about the Warner recording, though.
Indeed, the sonics of CD 4 – devoted to a live performance of Mahler’s Fifth from the Philharmonie, Köln – are even more spectacular, albeit in a blowsy, over-reverberant way. There are some odd sonorities too, but Barenboim does keep it moving tolerably well. That said, it’s not a very engaging or well-shaped performance, all bling and bluster. Even the CSO aren’t at their best, the brass ragged and ensemble generally rather rough. Oh dear, this is even less appealing than the Strauss, the music devoid of tonal variety or rhythmic subtlety. Mahler’s delightful dances are four-square, the whole overshadowed by an over-prominent bass drum. No redeeming features, I’m afraid, so I’ll draw a veil over this one and move on.
After such a crude, unlovely symphony – the usually svelte CSO aren’t blameless – I did wonder what to expect from Barenboim’s Das Lied von der Erde on CD 5. At least the soloists – Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem – are promising. Alas, the latter is severely strained by the tessitura of ’Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, his task made more difficult by a beefy, forward balance that favours the orchestra. As ever, Barenboim doesn’t seem comfortable in this repertoire, phrasing stiff and momentum fitful. There’s also a brashness to this reading that destroys the Mahlerian mood and line.
This is all the more dispiriting as Meier’s ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ is meltingly sung. In the orchestra there are so many missed opportunities, telling turns of phrase glossed over, nodal points scarcely acknowledged. I can’t recall a less evanescent reading of ‘Der Abschied’ either. Even Meier isn’t very inspired, her light, silvery voice – which can so easily sound bleached – lacking the expressive nuances others bring to this heart-stopping farewell. Indeed, I find Jane Henschel – on Naxos – far more affecting; but then she’s sympathetically supported by Hans Graf, a conductor who really seems to understand Mahler’s deeply personal idiom (review).
CD 6 is devoted to Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht more distantly recorded than either of the Mahler pieces. Cranking up the volume improves matters, although anyone reared on Karajan’s classic, streamlined account will baulk at the heft of the CSO. Why can’t I engage with Barenboim here, the music glimpsed as if in passing, not a single epiphany in sight? Yet another hectoring performance that I don’t wish to revisit. At least the Five Orchestral Pieces have welcome vitality and insight, Schoenberg’s piquant sonorities delivered with unexpected verve. Now that’s more like it, the music-making – and recording – very satisfying indeed.
Concentration really pays dividends here, and I found myself admiring Schoenberg’s abstruse musings more than I’d expected to. The playing of the CSO is sharp and colourful too, the sudden climaxes as arresting as one could wish for. The remaining items – the Opp. 11 and 19 piano pieces and Busoni’s arrangement of Op. 11 No. 2 – showcase Barenboim’s undoubted talents as a pianist. His readings may not be as lucid or as angular as some, but even his more lyrical approach can’t disguise the ‘shock of the new’ that greeted Schoenberg’s early audiences. And although the Op. 19 miniatures are a tad self-effacing they’re still very engaging.
It’s easy to forget that this is a bargain box – the six discs are priced at £3 each, less if you shop around – so it appears to represent good value for money. Musically, though, it’s a tough circle to square, as neither the CSO nor Barenboim are at their best here. Indeed, if I were a cynic I’d say this compendium is an attempt to lure buyers who wouldn’t otherwise be tempted by the individual issues. And it all comes in a sturdy box, each disc in a cardboard sleeve, which makes the package seem rather more substantial – and desirable – than it actually is.
Average or below average performances that don’t stack up financially or musically.
Complete contents list
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1896-1897) [53:51]
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1886-1889) [17:21]
Till Eulenspiegel, Op. 28 (1894-1895) [15:33]
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1897-1898) [46:21]
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1911-1915) [45:37]
Sinfonische Fantasie aus ‘Die Frau Ohne Schatten’ (1946) [21:18]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-1902) [69:17]
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909)* [60:23]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899) [29:37]
3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11 (1909)** [14:34]
5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 (1909) [17:46]
6 Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19 (1911)** [5:00]
Piano Piece, Op. 11 No. 2 (arr. Busoni)** [9:53]
*Waltraud Meier (mezzo), Siegfried Jerusalem (tenor)
**Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. various, 1991-1997