Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, op.20 (1888) [18:25]
Symphony in F minor, op.12 (1883) [43:33]
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, Alte Oper Frankfurt, 2-3 March 2014 (op.12) and 8- 9 March 2015 (op.20)
OEHMS CLASSICS OC890 [62:07]
Many of this website's regular readers will surely consider the weekly MusicWeb International Recommends feature to be one of its most thought-provoking elements. From a reviewer's point of view, there's always an element of suspense as you wait to see whether your fellow critics have also gone along with your choice. Sometimes you'll find that you're out on something of a limb - and while there's always the possibility that your critical faculties had gone momentarily awry in making your selection, I prefer to think that those occasions usually occur when you've identified a little known - or long forgotten - performance as something rather special.
I wasn't too surprised when, in a recent list of recommendations of Richard Strauss's Don Juan, no-one else seconded my nomination of Fritz Reiner conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. After all, the fact that that account was recorded more than seventy years ago in January 1941 means that a huge number of other recordings have subsequently appeared, most of them inevitably in much better sound - a point of considerable significance in a glittering score like Don Juan. Moreover, one of those later versions was Reiner's well-known 1954 re-recording with the higher profile Chicago Symphony Orchestra that seems to have effectively consigned his Pittsburgh account to the shadows. Had it not been for the recent 11-disc box set Fritz Reiner conducts Richard Strauss: the complete RCA and Columbia recordings (RCA Gold Seal 88883790552), that's probably where it would have continued to languish.
At the time he recorded his Pittsburgh Don Juan, Reiner was 52 years old. That's only a couple of years younger than the age at which Sebastian Weigle set down the Frankfurt account under consideration here. Listening to the two recordings blind, however, you'd be inclined to guess that the two conductors might have been decades apart in age.
From the very outset, Reiner grabs the score by the scruff of its neck and doesn't let go. This Pittsburgh Don is an impulsive, reckless young libertine. He's full of dash, vim and testosterone to spare, ready to sweep every girl off her feet - and onto her back - in a relentlessly bravura whirl of excitement. To the devil, you can almost hear him saying, with the consequences.
Weigle's protagonist could hardly be more different. Here’s an experienced seducer who takes his mission carefully and deliberately - softly, softly, catchee monkey, as the old Ashanti proverb puts it or maybe, just maybe, the old reprobate - and, yes, he's certainly at the very least middle-aged in this account - has finally discovered that there's more to love than just animalistic sex.
Let's remember, after all, that Don Juan doesn't necessarily have to be either young or, indeed, constantly priapic. It is actually a useful corrective to note how another medium has found him to be a much more interesting character when he wasn’t either. Thus, the 1934 feature film The private life of Don Juan cast a visibly ageing Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as a sick and rather down-at-heel Don attempting to reconcile his bloated reputation as a Great Lover with the reality of his life as a hen-pecked husband. Fourteen years later, Fairbanks' successor as king of the swashbucklers, Errol Flynn, portrayed our hero as a version of his real-life self – an increasingly jaded old roué, endlessly and less than enthusiastically trapped in a cycle of libidinous exploits by the exaggerated expectations of his admiring female public: not so much Captain Blood, any longer, as Captain Mainwaring.
In fact, the more I listened to Weigle's Don Juan, the more I came to appreciate the more restrained approach that, as I noted last year, also characterised his excellent account of the Symphonia Domestica in the second volume of this Strauss series (see here). As my colleague Dan Morgan also confirmed in his review of the first volume (see here), Weigle consistently eschews anything in the way of cheap, flashy effects in favour of underscoring the music's depth and seriousness. That's not to say that these are penny plain accounts. On the contrary, with his very finely executed control over both tempi and dynamics, Weigle reveals a wealth of coruscating detail that is superficially passed over in many other versions. The Frankfurt players are clearly at one with him throughout, as are the highly skilled Oehms engineering team.
All those positive remarks may also be applied to the second work on this disc, Strauss's F minor symphony of 1883. It was a considerable success at the time, with one excited reviewer describing an early performance as "an event that belongs to the greatest rarities of all ... A sweeping immense success! This is perhaps putting it too mildly, in view of the unanimous, enthusiastic, frenetic applause and the countless curtain calls ... it was a triumph - lacking only orchestral fanfare and flag-waving!" Listening to it today, however, it sounds almost indistinguishable from the many other Brahms-lite symphonies of its era. If you enjoy Raff, for instance, you will like this too - but I still doubt very much whether you'd choose to come back to it that often. Even more predictable than its early success, then, was the fact that the F minor symphony fell out of favour relatively quickly, so that Michael Kube's informative booklet notes can rightly characterise its position today as "almost forgotten … and hardly ever performed".
We are, though, fortunate that it has occasionally been committed to disc. My own shelves contain an account from Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra that dates from 1992 (Chandos CHAN9166) and another from 1997 performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Karl Anton Rickenbacher (Koch Schwann 3-6532-2). In both cases, however, I suspect that - as here with Weigle - the recordings might not have been made at all except for the fact that each formed part of a series: Järvi's was the tenth all-Strauss disc that he had made for Chandos, while Rickenbacher's was volume 3 of a series of 14 entitled "The unknown Richard Strauss".
As performances go, in all honesty there is not a great deal to choose between those earlier accounts and this new one. All of them are well conducted and performed and manage to present Strauss's score engagingly and in the best possible light, even if none actually adds any special insight or individuality. As a result, it may well be the greater clarity and immediacy of Oehms's state-of-the-art sound quality that tips the scales in favour of Weigle’s welcome new disc.