Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Op. 35. Fantastic Variations on a theme of knightly character* [40:11]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 [14:59]
*Alban Gerhardt (cello); *Lawrence Power (viola)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec.6-9 January 2012, Probensaal des Güzernich-Orchester, Cologne
HYPERION CDA67960 [55:11]
For this new recording of Don Quixote Hyperion has brought together two of its brightest instrumental stars, Alban Gerhardt and Lawrence Power. The conductor and orchestra are new to the label, I think; so far as I’m aware Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln are here making their Hyperion debut. Their involvement in this project is especially fitting since this orchestra gave the first performance of the work in 1898 and, indeed, the première of Till Eulenspiegel in 1895, as Michael Kennedy points out in his excellent booklet note.
Before discussing the performance I think it’s worth saying something about the recorded sound. I’ve reviewed all the issues to date in the Mahler cycle that Stenz and the orchestra have issued on the Oehms label and on occasion I’ve been mildly critical. The Oehms recordings have been balanced fairly closely - though not oppressively so - and comparisons with some competing recordings have suggested that in obtaining clarity Oehms has sacrificed a bit of natural concert hall perspective. That’s not the case here. The Hyperion recording reports all the detail you could wish for yet there’s also a satisfying perspective depth. I was interested to see that the engineer for this Hyperion disc is Jens Schünemann who has been the producer for all those Oehms discs. On this occasion he’s working with producer, Andrew Keener, who has been responsible for countless previous discs for Hyperion. The recording venues are different: the Mahler discs were all made in Cologne’s Philharmonie and that may well account for some of the difference in sound.
The readings are very fine. Right from the start of Don Quixote, in the Introduction, Markus Stenz lays out Strauss’s teeming, inventive and colourful score with fine attention to detail. There’s also good characterisation - as, for instance, in the lovely oboe solo. In short, Stenz conducts this opening extremely well and this proves to be a harbinger of what’s to follow. The Don and Sancho Panza announce themselves characterfully (tracks 2-3 respectively) and I’m almost inclined to say that Lawrence Power makes marginally the stronger first impression. Once we’ve met the two principal characters they’re off on their hare-brained adventures.
The sheep at which the Don mistakenly tilts his lance are sharply profiled (track 5). Following that ‘skirmish’ the dialogue between the Don and Panza is very well done (track 6). Hereabouts the Don is represented by the solo violin and Torsten Janicke, the orchestra’s leader, is in fine fettle. There’s just the right amount of querulousness in the exchanges between master and servant and once they’ve ended their bickering the rhapsodic development of the Dulcinea theme (track 6 from 3:43) is sumptuously played.
Alban Gerhardt really comes into his own with the Vigil episode (track 8). The Don’s ruminations are eloquently done and Gerhardt receives splendid support from the orchestra, chiefly from the cello section and the harp. The Ride through the Air (track 10) is one of my favourite passages in the work because it shows off to such great effect the composer’s virtuosity in handling a huge orchestra. The Cologne orchestra delivers it superbly. After sundry other alarums and excursions the Don’s retirement from the field of chivalry and his return home is movingly portrayed by Strauss; Gerhardt and the orchestra do this passage extremely well (track 13). Finally, Gerhardt excels in the portrayal of the Don reminiscing in old age. Here, in the autumn of life, something that Strauss was always so adept at portraying in music, even as a relatively young man, the music is dignified and touching and the performance mirrors that very well: in fact, the orchestral sound in these closing pages is glowing.
This is an excellent account of Don Quixote. The catalogue isn’t exactly short of fine recordings but this one competes with the best. Gerhardt and Power are marvellous principals but they manage to project their characters splendidly while giving us a sense also that they are primus inter pares, as Strauss intended. This is not a double concerto and there’s no sense of that here with Stenz and his orchestra making as strong a contribution as do the two principal soloists.
I wonder what the Gürzenich-Orchester of 1895 made of Till Eulenspiegel. Their modern day counterparts take all its difficulties in their stride as they do also its demands for characterisation. At times this piece strikes me as Strauss’s ‘Tom & Jerry’ work with its broad, helter-skelter humour. Stenz and his players give a fine and entertaining account of it, bringing to life, for example, the pandemonium of the market place episode. The trial and execution of Till is vividly portrayed as well: there’s no mercy for the wheedling clarinet yet, as Michael Kennedy observes, in the closing pages Strauss convinces us that Till was a lovable rogue. The playing throughout this performance is excellent with special praise being due for the woodwind and horn sections.
So, despite the rather short playing time there’s a great deal to commend this disc. As the icing on the cake, as well as top class playing and sound, there’s the booklet note by Michael Kennedy. I find his notes are always a pleasure to read and this is an excellent example of his craft, giving the reader not only background information about both pieces but also a really good outline of the action in each score which, as so often with this writer, whets one’s appetite to hear the music. I particularly like the way in which he works into his narrative of Till Eulenspiegel many of the composer’s own descriptions of the music.
Despite the rather short playing time there’s a great deal to commend this disc.
Masterwork Index: Don Quixote ~~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
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