Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op.20 [16.49]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28 [14.38]
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30 [33.44]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec.. Abbey Road Studios, London, March 1995
ALTO ALC 1197
These recordings were originally made for the now-defunct Tring label, who specialised in the production of cheap discs for sale mainly through supermarket outlets. As such it will already have attracted many purchasers who would not otherwise regard themselves as fans of classical music. They will have been well served by orchestral performances of the highest order - the RPO horns cover themselves with glory - conducting that is at once sympathetic and characterful, and a natural recording which allows all of Strauss’s glorious counterpoint to be clearly heard.
This reissue will, I hope, attract more such buyers, but they will not be ideally served by James Murray’s new booklet notes. In order fully to appreciate the music of these symphonic poems, the listener needs to have some idea of the exact ideas that Strauss is attempting to convey. Here, although we are given the titles of the individual sections in Also sprach Zarathustra in German, translations are only provided for some of these in the booklet. The appearances of plainchant melodies in the second section, for example, are not only unexplained but unmentioned. The scene where Zarathustra encounters maidens dancing in the woods is described merely as a “waltz”, and although the natural placing of the solo violin in the aural perspective obviates to some extent the unfortunate impression one sometimes receives that the hero has strayed into a Viennese café, nothing is said in the notes about the real inspiration behind the music. The original release credited Hugh Bean as the solo player, but this is no longer mentioned. In the final section the bells – depicting what Nietzsche calls “the deep midnight bell” are a couple of octaves too high, just ordinary tubular bells in fact.
Karajan had a particular affection for this piece – he asked that it should be his first recording for Decca in 1958 – and he took considerable trouble to make sure that the bell sounds were right, as his producer John Culshaw explains in his autobiography Putting the record straight. Indeed any one of his recordings show a greater sympathy for the score, and more character, than Mackerras does here. The latter is for example rather perfunctory and efficient in the philosophical final bars, moving the music along faster than is ideal. The contrast between the unrelated keys at the very end may no longer have the power to disturb that they did at the time of the first performance, but the sense of mystic dissociation and loss of direction that Strauss conveys is missing. The pause after that conclusion before the rushing entry of the strings in Don Juan is far too short, a mere six seconds or so, which leaves an unwary listener with the unfortunate impression that it is simply a continuation of the same piece. The same observation applies at the end of Don Juan, where the first notes of Till Eulenspiegel enter far too soon.
In Till Eulenspiegel the booklet notes are again insufficiently detailed. We are given no explanation of the various adventures of the raffish hero, which leaves such programmatic orchestral details as the sudden appearance of the rattle in the market scene sounding unmotivated. Room however is found in the four pages of booklet text for a page and a half of listings of other CDs reissued by Alto; these include some very interesting items – including re-masterings of the Giulini Don Giovanni and Karajan’s gala Die Fledermaus – but purchasers who may be unfamiliar with the music would have been better served by more detailed information on the music performed on this disc.
Impulse buyers will not be short-changed by the performances themselves, which display plenty of life; but others in search of a bargain may perhaps be better served by Karajan’s Vienna recordings for Decca which still sound excellent even after fifty years – it was after all this recording of Also sprach Zarathustra which, employed by Stanley Kubrick in the soundtrack 2001, finally established the work in the standard repertory. Karajan for example achieves more ‘lift’ in the rushing string passages (track 3, 1.02 et seq in this recording) which erupt in protest against the religious music of the second section. In his Don Juan solo the RPO oboist has a more naturally beautiful tone than Karajan’s somewhat sour VPO player, but the result - despite beautifully poised phrasing and expression - is slightly lacking in character. However the RPO horns make the very most of their rip-roaring moment of glory at 9.43. The hanging of Till Eulenspiegel is vividly portrayed by the piccolo clarinet, but the booklet note gives no explanation for the return of the opening material after that – the notion that the condemned character has now become a folk legend.
The back of the CD box quotes approving remarks from a review published in the Gramophone at the time of the first release, although the Gramophone online archive reveals that in that review David Gutman actually recommended Karajan’s later Berlin DG coupling of the same works - with the addition of the Dance of the seven veils - in preference to this one.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Listeners are well served by performances of the highest order.