There is much to enjoy in Jiri Kout's forthright way
with Strauss. He leads an overtly pictorial performance of Don
Quixote with a buoyant, flexible beat. His purposeful phrasing
always holds interest, and, when less than the whole orchestra
is going, as at 14:30, the interplay among the parts is vivid.
Kout brings a distinctive slant to some episodes. The "sheep"
variation at 11:22, for example, is more sustained and seamless,
less pointillistic than most. The intertwining motifs after
33:42, representing the defeated knight, evoke a mournful tone.
The coda is wistful, but the conductor keeps it flowing, without
trying to "milk" the episode.
Veteran listeners who remember the dry, scrawny Prague Symphony
of the 1970s, with its under-staffed string desks, will be pleasantly
surprised here. The string tone is warmly blended, if still
contained in scale. Woodwinds are crisp and alert, in the Czech
style: note the perky oboe staccatos in the introduction. The
clarinet is poignant in the closing pages. The solo horn can
sound raw and bracing when necessary, but the tone is secure
and the pitch firmly centered.
Still, Kout's mastery proves not quite comprehensive.
An occasional lack of rhythmic grounding makes the musical strands
line up imprecisely. This is not only in the more heavily contrapuntal
pages of the score - the first of which occurs at 3:18 - but
in the otherwise transforming, impassioned maggiore
episode at 16:43. For all the airy transparency of the reed-dominated
textures - at 12:45, for example, and at 30:31 - a wheeziness
intrudes, because the players are slightly out of tune. This
makes the final cadence a let-down after a long journey.
I don't mean to neglect cellist Miloš Jahoda. He plays
with a rich, dusky tone, but his energy tends to be low; only
the lyrical pages have some sense of character. At times, as
at 8:24, he succumbs to the temptation to "bow long"
- the indifferent articulations are more to blame for the sluggish
impression than are the tempos themselves. Jahoda is serviceable,
but hardly challenges the personality projection of Fournier
(Karajan/DG) or Munroe (Bernstein/Sony), not to speak of Rostropovich
The balance sheet for Tod und Verklärung is similar.
The solo woodwinds, particularly the flute, are sensitive and
clearly etched in the introduction, and a dramatic surge heralds
the arrival of the main Allegro. The massed brasses
are impressively full. As in the Quixote coda, Kout
moves the final "transfiguration" along, without straining
at profundity. The tuttis, once again, can feel dense
and undifferentiated - a problem in this score, which can feel
one turbulent episode too long. Here over-bright tuttis,
a mild distraction in Op. 35, are more of a liability.
Other than that brightness, the recorded sound comes up well,
reproducing the winds with excellent depth. The producers'
decision to give the 41-minute Don Quixote a single
track is an inconvenience if you're trying to cue up
a particular spot.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach,