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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1897) [40:11]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1894-5) [14:39]
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. Probensaal des Gürzenich-Orchester, Köln, 2012
HYPERION CDA67960 [55:11]

Markus Stenz offers a fresh, forthright Don Quixote. He sets judicious tempi and doesn't much fuss with them: even the recurring clarinet arpeggio that first appears at 0:47, allowed to wilt in some performances, is held firmly in tempo until its final, reflective appearance in the coda. He maintains a sense of lightness, but without sacrificing tonal weight: the sprightly tutti of the sheep episode (track 5) is firmly grounded, the "Battle against the supposed enchanters" (track 12) vigorous but not rushed. Finally, the conductor has an excellent ear for the contrapuntal textures: the "delirious" interplay of motifs after Quixote's exit processional (track 13) is particularly impressive.

The cellist, Alban Gerhardt, fits in with the conductor's approach, or, perhaps, vice versa: the "balance of power" in this score can skew either way. Gerhardt is a robust, vibrant player in the Rostropovich style, producing a full, dusky tone with an impressive amplitude and a wide dynamic range. His tuning is impressive: -- only in the windmill scene, where the triplets "sit" long on the bow, do a few quick notes get away from him -- and his rhythmic address is incisive.

Such musicality presages an unusually cohesive, pictorial reading of these "knightly variations," though one can quibble over the handling of this or that variation. I found the "sheep" unusually soft-edged and subdued, though definition is clear. The brass-and-clarinet procession of the "penitents" (track 7) is light and clear, the clarinet properly subordinate even as the volume increases. The bracing "Dulcinea" music (track 9), dispelling the ruminative mood of the preceding episode, is bright and bouncy. Throughout the performance, the Gürzenich strings' handsomely manicured, purposeful phrasing contributes to the general clarity, while the principal woodwinds, particularly the oboe, are sensitive.

A few details misfire. The "dialogue between knight and servant" (track 6) unfolds magically, but its final chord misses the needed transfiguration. The "ride through the air" (track 10) is inevitably opaque -- the wind machine will do that -- though Stenz brings out its broad arc. The epilogue stumbles: Gerhardt spins out his lines with spacious expression, but Stenz, attempting to relax, nearly loses the music's through-line, and a wheezy final cadence spoils the ending.

Till Eulenspiegel. once seemingly inextricably harnessed to Don Juan, has more recently become a regular makeweight for the big tone poems, for which its lighter spirit and relative brevity make it a good foil. Stenz is again forthright, characterful, and rhythmically alert. His ear for counterpoint again tells: I'd never before heard the bassi at 8.19 as carrying the main motif. He rather overdoes the surging crescendos for Till's march to the scaffold at 11:48, but allows the coda a lovely wistful turn before the emphatic finish. The playing is nicely sprung throughout, even in the ominous brass chords of the development; the lighter episodes are deft and cheerful.

Hyperion's recording, as you would expect, is basically excellent, though -- as seems common nowadays -- a volume setting that allows you to savour detail produces edgy, insistent highs in tutti. I was pleased to hear a decently long pause between the two performances.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York.

Previous review: John Quinn



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