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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier Letzte Lieder [24:58]
Eine Alpensinfonie [53:24]
Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952)
Ernster Gesang [13:56]
Anja Harteros (soprano)
Staastkapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, Semperoper, Dresden, 8-9 June 2014
Region 0, Screen ratio 16:9, Audio: PCM 2.0 and DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio
C MAJOR Blu-ray 726504 [103:00]

This concert was, doubtless, part of Dresden’s contribution to the Richard Strauss centenary, and what better orchestra to pay tribute to Strauss? After all, they premiered most of his operas and were intimately associated with his music throughout his life. They remain the Strauss orchestra par excellence, and this Blu-Ray shows why.

Before you get to the Strauss, though, you get Wolfgang Rihm’s Serious Song for Orchestra, a response to Brahms’ Four Serious Songs. Rihm was Dresden’s Capell-Compositeur during 2013-14, so they know him well, and they treat his work both seriously and earnestly. It begins with ominous trilling clarinets, which feature prominently in the smaller-sized orchestra. The tone is predominantly dark and moody, but it searches around for a melody, so it is not totally toneless. The dark, autumnal colour certainly pays tribute to one particular vision of Brahms, and fragments of some of Brahms' themes can be heard in the work. It’s never less than interesting, and is part of Rihm's assertion that art is a response to art: tradition is something living and responsive rather than a static thing from the past.

For this concert, Rihm also orchestrated Malven, Strauss's very last song, found in the possessions of Maria Jeritza in 1982; hence the (more accurate) title of the disc as Last Songs rather than Four Last Songs, as Malven is performed as part of a set with the other four. It's prettily done, rather dainty and light of touch, in fact, if rather icy in parts of the string writing. Its mood seems a little out of keeping with the other songs, though, and I doubt it will catch on as part of a set. However, that doesn't detract from its standing as good music.

Anja Harteros sounds sensational in all five of the songs. The voice is creamy and golden, totally effortless and effortlessly beautiful in the service of Strauss's music. She is probably the top choice for this repertoire in the world at the moment, and runs rings around Anna Netrebko in this repertoire. She gets the refulgence of opening song just right, rising magisterially to crest the wave of not just the opening phrase but the whole song. The Dresden winds are a knockout at the start of September, while Harteros matches them with tone of delicacy and gentleness, in contrast to the more assertive Frühling, where she melts gorgeously into the sensational final horn solo. Gentle weariness comes through in Beim Schlafengehen and the orchestra are beautifully supportive, the violin solo evoking a world of pathos and backward reflections. Harteros herself seems to grow into the songs as the performance progresses, finding new levels of intensity as it goes on, and this focused clarity keeps going through a quietly radiant Im Abendrot. It winds down beautifully for final phrase, “Is this then death?” and, tellingly, there is a long silence before the applause begins, even after Thielemann has put down his baton. Of recent interpretations I’ve heard, no one comes close to Harteros: not Renee Fleming, and certainly not Anna Netrebko. This is superb, and it is a curtain-raiser to an equally outstanding performance of the Alpensinfonie.

Thielemann’s opening is swift, as if getting down to business, and there is a briskness to his reading that refuses to wallow but never sounds rushed. The Dresden brass are darkly thrilling in first statement of mountain theme, and build to an exciting sunrise with a glorious horn line. The Ascent is purposeful and exciting, becoming more vigorous and then thrilling on the plunge into the forest with the offstage hunting horns captured brilliantly in the surround sound option. There is lovely colour to the string tone in the expansive melody of the Flowery Meadow section and, when the summit is finally achieved, the brass open up a huge quantity of space which is filled by a beautifully smooth oboe solo. There then follows a gorgeous swoosh of orchestral sound for the great climax, which will make your scalp prickle. A palpable tone of uncertainty then sets in for The Descent, and the strings become ever more threatening as the storm approaches. The clarity of the recorded sound means you pick up a lot of detail during the tempest itself, and the Epilogue section has a sense of striven-for peace, a goal hard won and thus lingered on. The conclusion itself feels momentous and unarguable, the summation of a huge achievement.

With all the excitement going on around him, Thielemann cuts a strangely impassive figure on the podium, not even breaking a sweat. He is interesting to see, but it is so much better to get such clean close-ups of the Staatskapelle players. This really helps to bring the experience to life. On a technical level, the different sections of the tone poem are all given separate chapters on the Blu-Ray: there is no on-screen title telling you when we're moving from one to the next, but they are all named in the booklet. Picture quality is outstanding in its clarity, and the director always puts the eye where the ear wants it to be.

In sum, these are two brilliant Strauss performances which will sit nicely in my collection and will bear comparison with many much older audio performances. Buy with confidence.

Simon Thompson