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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888) [18:33]
Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 (1888/89) [26:18]
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28 (1895) [14:35]
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck
rec. 8-10 June 2012, Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, USA

This year, 2014, marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. In these highly competitive times commercial imperatives are the driving force behind most recordings. Nevertheless it is to be hoped that this Strauss anniversary year will produce some fresh recordings of his lesser regarded orchestral works including the symphonic fantasy Aus Italien, the tone poem Macbeth, the orchestral suite Le bourgeois gentilhomme and the Symphonia Domestica.
Here on this Reference Recordings SACD are three of Strauss’s most successful orchestral scores regarded by many as masterpieces of the genre.  

The opening work is Don Juan, a tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau’s dramatic poem. It was the seventeenth century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina who created the character of the renowned Spanish lover Don Juan from traditional folk legends. Many playwrights were inspired to write about Don Juan, notably Byron, Dumas and Molière. Based on the play by Hungarian poet Nikolaus Lenau, Strauss was aged only twenty-four when he commenced sketches for Don Juan in 1888. Considered for its time a revolutionary work when Don Juan was introduced at Weimar in 1889, its success elevated Strauss to superstar status. It’s not hard to imagine that this period was an extremely happy one in Strauss’s life as around this time he was in love with his future wife the soprano Pauline de Ahna. Maestro Honeck conducts the noble introduction toDon Juan with an heroic feel to this moody and colourful score in which a sumptuous and ripe sensuality predominates. With a striking range of orchestral colour the Pittsburgh orchestra’s stormy and robust surges of restless energy are almost overpowering. The conductor points out, in the notes, that at the end of Don Juan for emphasis he has adjusted the sound of the strings “gradually to transform the tone into an uncomfortable, convulsing and shuddering ponticello until the final pizzicato marks the hero’s last heartbeat.” Honeck and his Pittsburgh players excel in this work but without displacing the 1957 Dresden account from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm the 1963 Berlin account Berliner Philharmoniker also under Karl Böhm or the 1972/73 Berlin account from Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan; all three are on Deutsche Grammophon.

In 1888/89 Strauss wrote the tone poem Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklarung). It is his attempt to depict the last moments of an artist on his deathbed reflecting on his youth. Here Strauss was unable to draw upon his own personal experience of serious illness and was using his imagination. At the behest of Strauss, his friend Alexander Ritter wrote an interpretation of Death and Transfiguration in a poem; in effect a programme note. This receives a splendidly paced and moving performance with a glorious wash of orchestral sound. As fine as this Pittsburgh recording is it fails to displace my preferred 1982 Berlin account by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan and also his earlier 1972/3 Berlin account with the same forces each on Deutsche Grammophon.
The tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks - after an old picaresque legend in rondo form for large orchestra, was composed by Strauss in 1895. Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’s mischievous prankster, is a character from fourteenth century traditional German folk legends. Concerned with orchestral detail Honeck in the notes explains that in the trial scene he has heightened the pitch of the D clarinet to make it more audible. He further reveals the importance of giving extra emphasis to the sforzato chords. Strauss’s agreeably heart-warming score is so full of light-hearted mischief but despite a valiant attempt this version cannot match the compellingly portrayed reading by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Rudolf Kempe from Berlin in 1958 reissued on Regis. In addition there are strong claims for the convincing live 2009 Munich recording from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons on BR Klassik.
I played this hybrid SACD on my standard player. Recorded in 2012 by Soundmirror of Boston the satisfying sound certainly serves the music splendidly being warm and clear with an excellent balance.
In recent years this orchestra has grown in stature and with this release in the Pittsburgh Live! series their collaboration has once again borne luscious fruit.
Michael Cookson 

Masterwork Index: Don Juan ~~ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks ~~ Tod und Verklarung