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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, op. 20 [17:25]
Vier letzte Lieder [22:07]
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 [33:52]
Erin Wall (soprano)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. live, May 2013, July 2014, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
German texts and English translations included
ABC CLASSICS 4811122 [73:46]

What drew me principally to this disc was the presence of the Canadian soprano, Erin Wall. The present performance of Vier letzte Lieder was given in July 2014; a few months before that I’d heard her sing the songs in Birmingham and I’d been impressed (review). A strong feature of that Birmingham performance was the clarity with which Miss Wall enunciated the words and that clarity is evident here too. Her bright, gleaming soprano suits these songs and her partnership with Davis and his orchestra is an effective one; the accompaniment to ’September’, for instance, is very nicely etched. In this song Erin Wall delivers the last two lines particularly well, her lingering tone gradually easing us into the golden horn postlude. In ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ the gorgeous violin solo is beautifully played and immediately afterwards, at the words ‘Und die Seele unbewacht/Will in freien Flügen schweben’, Miss Wall’s voice soars rapturously, making the most of Strauss’s glorious phrases. Sir Andrew unfolds the introduction to ‘Im Abendrot’ spaciously, which I like. Erin Wall is very expressive and at the start of the final stanza, ‘O weiter, stiller Friede!’ her singing is particularly beguiling. Rightly she seems to have saved her best singing for this concluding song. The orchestral postlude glows gently and satisfyingly.

The catalogue is crammed with memorable versions of these magnificent songs and everyone will have their own favourites – mine include the readings by Lisa della Casa, Lucia Popp and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Erin Wall may not quite match such exalted company – and some other leading versions – but hers is a very good performance that gave me a lot of pleasure. Having been delighted by her account of the songs in Birmingham I’m delighted to have her interpretation available on disc.

By a strange coincidence that Birmingham concert began with Don Juan and Sir Andrew Davis opens this CD with the same work, though it was not recorded at the same concerts at which the songs were performed. He achieves a good adrenalin rush at the very start and thereafter one of the distinguishing characteristics of the performance is an excellent and welcome clarity of texture. Such a level of clarity is what one would expect in a studio recording but to achieve it in concert is commendable, both as regards the orchestra and the recording engineers. I remember seeing this orchestra in a televised Prom in 2014. I recall that I was impressed. What I had forgotten, until I looked up the Seen and Heard review of that concert was that it too had begun with Don Juan. I read Robert Beattie’s comments about the Prom after listening to this CD but I see he enjoyed that London performance as much as I enjoyed this one, which is edited from a series of performances given before the orchestra set off on the European tour that included their Proms appearance.

In this recording I liked very much the silken violin solo phrases before the love music (from 1:50) and the love music itself is warmly played. Later the languorous oboe solo is longingly played (6:46). When the unison horns announce the new Don-related theme (10:00) they do so with authority though I must say I’ve heard it ring out with more panache and swagger in other performances; here it’s just a bit straight-faced. Davis manages the demise of the Don very successfully and overall I enjoyed this performance.

Also sprach Zarathustra also goes well. The famous Introduction is impressively sonorous and I admired the playing of the strings in the subsequent section, ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’. Davis directs a surging account of the following two sections and in ‘Der Genesende’ he manages an exciting build-up to a powerful recapitulation of the opening Nature theme. In ‘Das Tanzlied’ the waltz material is attractively done and as the section unfold Davis ensures that the music sounds increasingly hedonistic and impetuous in the lead-up to the passage where the bell tolls. He and the Melbourne orchestra achieve a refined, hushed end to the piece. After this performance – but not after the other two works – there’s applause; actually, it’s quite a vociferous ovation. Usually I don’t mind applause at the end of a live recording but here it rather jars and as all three works on the disc end quietly I wonder why Also sprach has been ‘singled out’ in this way by the producers of the recording. I should say, however, that elsewhere there’s no extraneous noise to betray the presence of an audience.

The sound on all three recordings is fully satisfactory; as I’ve indicated earlier, a pleasing amount of detail can be heard. The notes are by a variety of authors – I suspect that these are the notes used in the original concert programmes – and all are useful.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra plays impressively for its chief conductor. There are many fine versions of all three works in the catalogue and individually these Melbourne accounts may not challenge the very best of the competition. However, all three performances are very good and if the programme appeals then I don’t think that anyone buying this disc will feel at all disappointed.

John Quinn