Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1888/89) [26.30]
Aus Italien (Sinfonie Fantasie in G-Dur), Op. 16 [42:23]
Frankfurter Opern-und Museums-Orchester/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live 8 & 9 March 2015 (Op. 24); 25 & 26 June 2017 (Op.16), Alte Oper, Frankfurt
OEHMS CLASSICS OC892 [69:05]
Judging by the frequency with which they are scheduled in concert and issued and re-issued in recordings, Strauss’ tone poems are more popular than ever. The live recording above is one of two new accounts of Tod und Verklärung which have arrived for me to review and I recently named Celibidache’s 1979 live recording of the piece with the Munich Philharmonic as my Recording of the Month (review). The great age of studio recording may be largely over, but the quality of modern sound engineering and the virtuosity of so many orchestras worldwide means that we now encounter live – or live composite – which may be recordings the equal of studio versions and which also benefit from the atmosphere of live performance – audience noise permitting.
The problem with this issue is not that it is in any way bad, merely that the back catalogue for recordings of Tod und Verklärung is so strong, one wonders why anyone would specifically choose this one, especially when it is coupled not with another of the major tone poems but rather an admittedly decent performance of what is essentially a youthful, minor Strauss work which has also received some recommendable recordings, including Riccardo Muti’s in 1989 with the Berlin Philharmonic. It is significant that Strauss specialists such as Karajan rarely bothered with the work, insofar as, like Strauss’ Macbeth, another youthful work, it is fine and interesting but hardly comparable with the great tone poems. Kempe made a typically refined recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle in 1974, Fabio Luisi conducted an SACD version with the same orchestra in 2010 and Strauss’ friend Clemens Krauss made a mono version with the VPO way back, but there are still only a dozen or so recordings in the catalogue. I already have on my shelves three further recordings conducted by Bertrand de Billy, Neeme Järvi and Zdenék Košler on a bargain Naxos disc, and in truth there isn’t much to choose between them; they are all well played and eminently satisfactory.
However, even a good recording can pale in comparison with a great one, and there are some disappointments in this Tod und Verklärung. I find Kempe a tad cool but consistent and absorbing; By contrast, Weigle’s account here lacks tension: the brooding introduction is missing the requisite sense of expectation; the first drum-thwack is rather tame; great brass fanfare half way through lacks impact and the swirling upward spiral of strings twenty minutes in goes for nothing. I returned to the above-mentioned Celibidache live performance and to Szell in his spectacular Szell 1957 recording – in extraordinary sound, despite a bit of hiss - to remind myself of how thrilling this music can be. Things pick up towards the end but that’s too little too late for this recording to be truly competitive and although the sound is generally good, to my ears it is just a little muddy and the tam-tam gets lost.
I shall stick with my established favourites rather than endorse these decent but essentially uninspiring recordings.