Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Op 35 (1897) [41:24]*
Tod und Verklärung, Op 24 (1889) [24:05]
*Milo Jahoda (cello); *Jiri Hurnik (violin); *Pavel Perina (viola)
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Jiri Kout
rec. in performance, Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague, January and *September 2009
FOK 0004-2 031 [65:35]
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 Milo 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 (Karajan/EMI).
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, and journalist.
Much to enjoy in Kout's forthright way with Strauss.