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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, op.30 [34:35]
Don Quixote, Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters, op.35 [43:16]
Isang Enders (cello), Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, Alte Oper Frankfurt, March 2018

The name of this orchestra, which translates as ‘Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra’ sounds a bit stuffy and not very enticing. However, that shouldn’t put anyone off; the name goes back to 1808 when the Frankfurt Museum was created, and the orchestra found it an excellent venue for concerts (Louis Spohr, no less, was their conductor at the time).

This CD is the final one in a series that has presented all of the Strauss symphonic poems (I use that term instead of ‘tone poem’, which is an inaccurate rendition of ‘Tondichtung’ – ‘Ton’ being the German word for ‘sound’, not ‘tone’).

So what of these performances? Despite its famous (notorious?) opening passage – a stunning depiction of sunrise in mountainous scenery until the space industry discovered it – Also Sprach Zarathustra is, for me, an unsatisfactory piece, disjointed and bitty. To make it function, conductor and orchestra must go for broke, and although the orchestral playing here is disciplined and stylish, this seems a small-scale, slightly tepid performance. Perhaps Weigle and his players feel the same way about the work as I do – it certainly seems like it.

Don Quixote however fares much better. It’s a superior piece anyway, and manages to blend successfully the concepts of symphonic poem, variations and concerto form. The ‘cello soloist is the young German-born Isang Enders, who handles his demanding solo part well, though his initiation of the great F# major melody in Variation 3 lacks a sense of space in the phrasing. This is the most beautiful passage in the work and is its emotional core, so this was undoubtedly a disappointment. A word of appreciation however for the viola solos of Thomas Rössel (the orchestra’s principal viola) in his ‘Sancho Panza’ role – characterised so well.

The recording of this live event is very successful, and, all in all this is a creditable disc, though not an outstanding one. And the competition is pretty intense; it’s still hard to see past the great Karajan/BPO performances of the 1960s, and the Don Quixote with Fournier has long been a huge favourite of mine. And for Zarathustra, it’s very hard to beat Sinopoli and the New York PO from 1990, also on DG. So this one, though it has many lovely things, is hard to recommend strongly.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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