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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tone Poems - 2
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1895) [14:33]
Don Quixote (1897) [40:41]*
Macbeth (1892) [18:36]+
*Frank-Michael Guthmann (cello)
*Johannes Lüthy (viola)
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/François-Xavier Roth
rec. Konzerthaus Freiburg, June 2012, +March 2013; Rosengarten Mannheim and Konzerthaus Freiburg, December 2012
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.304 [74:19]

François-Xavier Roth plays Richard Strauss with a lightness and zest rare among this composer's interpreters. The rollicking horn arpeggio near the start of Till Eulenspiegel - buoyantly rendered, yet with every note perfectly placed - presages a vivacious, even joyous performance. Yet Roth doesn't slight the lyrical passages, either, using dynamic control to draw expression the ambling second theme, which hews closer than most to the established pulse. The reflective passage that opens the coda, while unfussy, is uniquely poignant.
 
A similar lightness of touch and attention to detail inform the orchestral passages of Don Quixote. The deft grace with which each note of the introductory phrases is daubed into place will be reflected later, in the very methodical crescendo with which Roth shapes the "pilgrim" episode (track 8) over all the musical elements, and with the clean, unfussy "placing" of the woodwind "sheep" (track 6). Throughout the performance, the conductor maintains a steady flow, no matter how cluttered the counterpoint, and draws characterful playing: the stopped horn notes at 2:27 chortle with just the right touch of raucousness.
 
The featured cellist, unfortunately, drags things down. Frank-Michael Guthmann plays his opening phrases (track 5) strenuously - appropriate as a depiction of the elderly would-be knight, to be sure. Guthmann persists in this way, playing in a firm but heavy, unvaried manner, seemingly oblivious to the variety of colours and textures surrounding him. Whenever the cello takes the lead, the performance becomes earthbound.
 
Two similar episodes, one with the soloist and one without, will illustrate the point. Roth moves forthrightly, without dawdling, through the "prayer" episode (track 7), for orchestra alone, but he unfolds the broad lyrical phrases sensitively, with affecting results. Compare this with the similarly lyrical coda, dominated by the soloist: Guthmann gets off to a clunky start with two extended, vibrato-less upbeats, and never quite finds a flow or direction for his phrases. The playing is scrupulous, but the effect is detached - an unsatisfying finish for the piece.
 
The "Scottish tone-poem" is early Strauss - his first single-movement tone-poem, in fact - and he's grappling not only with the form, but with finding his voice. The opening musical gestures are conventionally portentous, and Roth lays into them with taut, biting attacks. He still finds opportunities for lightness and transparency later in the piece: bringing out the music's waltzy undercurrent at 4:23, maintaining it as the music gradually expands into bombast.
 
The sound is vivid and detailed, though a slightly boomy ambience renders Don Quixote's imposing "exit processional" (track 14) a bit splashy.
 
Roth strikes me as a conductor who doesn't take anything for granted, and I like the results. I'll be on the lookout for more of his work in the future.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Masterwork Index: Don Quixote ~~ Macbeth ~~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche