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Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952)
Ernster Gesang für Orchester (1997) [13:56]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Letzte Lieder für Sopran und Orchester [24:58]
Eine Alpensinfonie für großes Orchester, Op. 64 [53:24]
Anja Harteros (soprano)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. 2014, Semperoper, Dresden,
Video direction: Michael Beyer
Region 0, Screen ratio 16:9, Audio: PCM 2.0 and DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio
Subtitles: Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish
C MAJOR DVD 726408 [103:00]

Why, you may ask, does the track-listing above not announce the Vier Letze Lieder? The reason is that this performance includes a fifth song in the shape of Malven, which was orchestrated in 2013 by Wolfgang Rihm. More of that in a moment.

It’s with original music by Rihm that this Strauss 150th anniversary concert begins. Ernster Gesang was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra to mark the centenary of the death of Brahms and Rihm took as his inspiration Brahms’s Vier Ernst Gesang. We are told in the booklet that his piece “takes over individual motifs and harmonic details from various works by Brahms but pays tribute to [Rihm’s] great predecessor chiefly through its dark and autumnal tone colours.” The work calls for a small-ish ensemble – I’d guess that some 30 players are involved in this performance – and all the instruments are from the lower, darker end of the orchestral sound spectrum. There’s a quartet of clarinets, positioned where the first violins would normally sit, and the rest of the ensemble comprises violas, cellos, double basses, bassoons, low brass, horns and timpani. You can hear frequently what are clearly Brahmsian fragments emerge from and recede back into Rihm’s orchestral palette. The music is mainly quite subdued in tone. It’s played here with what appears to be fastidious attention to detail by Thielemann and his players. I found it interesting to listen to though I doubt I shall return to it often.

The Strauss items, however, are heard in performances to which I shall certainly return. The Dresden orchestra had a long and close association with Strauss, premiering several of his works, including, in 1915 under the composer’s direction, Eine Alpensinfonie. This work was dedicated to the Dresden Royal Orchestra – an earlier name for the present-day Staatskapelle Dresden.

Anja Harteros has recorded the Vier Letze Lieder twice before. She first recorded them in 2007 with this same orchestra under its previous principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, on a disc that also included Eine Alpensinfonie (review). There’s also a 2009 version with Mariss Jansons, which I liked very much (review). Into this present performance is inserted Malven. This was the composer’s very last song, written in 1948 for Maria Jeritza. For some reason she kept the song firmly under wraps and it was not until she died in 1982 that the manuscript was discovered, locked away in her safe. It’s a pretty, pleasing song though I don’t think it remotely matches the stature of any one of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Wolfgang Rihm orchestrated it in 2013. He’s done a good job, I think, and has sensitively restrained the orchestral palette to match the tone of the song. I found it very interesting and I hope that it will go on to take its place alongside other orchestrations of Strauss Lieder. However, I’m not persuaded that it was a good idea to include it within a performance of the other Letzte Lieder; it’s placed second. The trouble is that we’re so used to the four songs as a set, albeit the performing order of those songs is sometimes altered, and they’re so perfect as a group that Malven here feels like an intrusion. If it had to be included it might have been preferable to place it first. That said Harteros and Thielemann are fine advocates in what I presume was the first performance of the song in its new orchestral guise.

Their partnership is extremely impressive in the other songs too. I was interested to watch Thielemann at work here. He watches his singer like a hawk – ‘September’ is a case in point – so that he’s constantly with her in matters of rubato. He’s a most attentive accompanist and he obtains from the orchestra a glorious rendition of Strauss’s accompaniments. At the end Harteros embraces him warmly; I’m sure she felt throughout the performance that her voice was supported on a wonderful web of orchestral sound and that the skill of the conductor and players gave her the ideal freedom to be expressive.

She sings the songs marvellously. At the very start of ‘Frühling’ I thought I detected a slight edge to the tone but if so that soon disappears and throughout the performance her tone is gorgeous. I admired too the clarity of her diction – I didn’t use the subtitles, which would have been redundant. There’s a ravishing performance of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ while the singing and playing during ‘Im Abendrot’ is dedicated, the lines beautifully spun. The orchestral postlude is simply exquisite. This is a marvellous performance of the songs that constitute Strauss’s final gift to the soprano voice.

Eine Alpensinfonie receives a very fine performance too. Thielemann is far too fastidious a conductor to adopt a sensationalist or ‘picture postcard’ style in this work. Instead he offers a finely controlled performance. And though the big moments are superbly realised – a vivid Storm and a majestic panorama from the Summit - I admired even more the less flamboyant, subtle detailing of the performance. Thus, for example, before the warm, expansive Sunrise the mysterious shadings in Strauss’s depiction of Night are played with admirable control. The nature-painting in the Forest is etched in with a keen eye for detail. Perhaps one of the most impressive features in the whole performance is the way in which Thielemann and his players achieve tremendous tension in the build-up to the Storm. There’s an ominous stillness in this passage which is completely compelling.

In the closing minutes of the work the Epilogue is simply wonderful. Here the playing is sovereign and it’s in episodes such as this that you appreciate that when it comes to Strauss orchestras the Staatskapelle Dresden is the Real Deal.

Thielemann’s conducting style is most interesting. Few expressions come across his face and his gesticulations are minimal. He’s clearly a disciple of Strauss’s dictum that the audience should perspire, not the conductor. He is one of the most immaculately turned-out of conductors and he maintains that appearance throughout the concert. Does all this suggest that he’s impassive or soulless? I don’t think so. I suspect that he is very traditional in his approach, believing that the hard work is done in rehearsal and that on the night the conductor should trust his players to execute what’s been determined in rehearsal, making minimal adjustments as necessary. Above all he seems to believe that the conductor shouldn’t get in the way of the music. If all that’s true then I applaud him. Most certainly I wasn’t aware of any disengagement or coolness in these performances.

This is a very fine set of performances and the music-making has been very well preserved on this DVD. The camera work is excellent: it’s to the point and does not distract in any way. The sound, too, is very good. This would be a splendid addition to the collection of any Strauss devotee. The concert was reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Michael Cookson, who clearly found his evening in the Semperoper a memorable experience.

John Quinn

Previous review (Blu-ray): Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)