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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1889) [18:04]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1893)
Wesendonck Lieder WWV 91 (1862) [19:18]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 1 in C minor op. 68 (1876) [46:19]
Nina Stemme (soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. August 2012, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg Festival
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DD 5.0, DTS 5.0
Region code: 0
Subtitles and booklet notes: English, German, French
EUROARTS 2072628 [95:00]

This concert from the 2012 Salzburg Festival sees Mariss Jansons conduct a trio of German romantic greats. The Vienna Philharmonic are on fine form throughout, producing the sort of golden sound for which they are famous but with the tight ensemble of which they are sometimes accused of lacking. 

The account of Brahms’ first symphony is a graceful and elegant one. There is certainly plenty of weight in the more turbulent moments, but the quality of playing Jansons draws out in the softer moments leaves a more lasting impression. In the first movement he does not take the repeat, and so despite giving a meaty and passionate account of the exposition, the passage seems to pass very quickly. The long violin lines unfold in a brilliant arc, with even more intensity at their second appearance, and there were some moments of golden beauty in the blending of woodwind and horns. By the end of the movement, the early tempest seemed a long way away. 

So it is with the inner movements. The second is taken as a broad, summery idyll. The solo playing from first oboe, horn and concertmaster is superb, making for a quiet sense of wistfulness which Jansons lovingly allows to blossom. There is more energy in the third movement but it retains a sense of youthful energy and a carefree, pastoral atmosphere.
 
So to the finale. The stuttering opening adds tension to the performance without disrupting its overall shape. At first I felt the ensuing famous horn solo passage to be a little undercooked. It is taken at a relatively brisk, unsentimental tempo, and though both horn and flute produce a beautiful tone, the strings do not quite shimmer as they might. On reflection, however, this approach works quite well in maintaining the coherence of the symphony as a whole. By eschewing extremes elsewhere, this passage needs not be as transcendently redemptive as it otherwise would. The strings come into their own far more at the noble C major theme which follows. The thick, rich sound from the violins' low register is wonderfully sustained into long, majestic lines, and the cellos support with playing of similar high quality. There is further good playing from all sections in the remainder of the movement, before Jansons finds another gear for the final minutes. His drive to a thrilling ending was certainly good fun, but it felt slightly out of character with the rest of the symphony, which had mostly been a rather gentle affair.
 
Nina Stemme brings a display of hugely impressive control and subtlety to Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder. A consistently beautiful but pliable tone is produced. The lines are shaped perfectly to suit the text; a gentle tapering off in sound accompanies a "waft to heaven", for instance. In the fourth song, there is a bright, steely sheen to her voice as she sings of sunrises and heroes, rather reminiscent of Siegfried. She finds a strong sense of drama in the third song, half whispering at times and with engaging facial expressions. With some very soft string tremolo underneath, this makes for a beautiful atmosphere for a few moments. The orchestral playing is always sympathetic, aided by a slightly reduced string section, and the woodwind add some fine solos of their own, notably from Principal Oboe in the second song. The sighing figures of the finale are pleasingly spacious, making for a very satisfying end to an excellent performance.
 
Don Juan, Strauss's vigorous tone poem from his early twenties, receives a well-rounded, cogent reading. The opening charge is slightly steadier than is often heard, but this opens up a number of windows onto more beautiful moments from various sections. Don Juan's romantic endeavours are lavishly painted with finely balanced string and brass sounds. The horns and woodwinds shine, especially in the oboe solos, once again. The more exuberant passages are by no means earthbound, though, maintaining a crisp bounce until the Don's demise. Here, Jansons takes a huge pause before the dark coda.
 
The concert is recorded in warm, rich sound, perfect for this orchestra, who play with little of the untidiness of which they are sometimes accused. Jansons studiously avoids extremes, but brings out the orchestra’s best in a golden, warm tone which comes across very well. Semyon Bychkov’s account of the symphony alongside Brahms 2 with the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, is a strong competitor.
 
Rohan Shotton

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 1 ~~ Strauss Don Juan

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