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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896) [34:4]
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1888/89) [23:30]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1895) [14:50]
San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. November 1994 (Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel); March 1995 (Also sprach), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Presto CD
DECCA 448 815-2 [72:24]

Re-released by Presto under licence from Decca, this recording hails from a time when companies were recording too many of the standard classics which soon dropped out of the catalogue regardless of merit because there was simply too much on the market. Blomstedt was music director of the San Francisco Symphony for a decade beginning in 1985 and made with them many excellent recordings for Decca, so much so that they issued a 15 CD box set in 2014 featuring works by Hindemith, Nielsen, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, Schubert and, of course, as per here, Strauss. He had, however, previously been chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden, with whom he made some first-rate recordings of core Strauss repertoire, so one might legitimately question whether more Strauss was “needed”. It must be conceded that there are not so many differences between the Dresden and San Francisco recordings in timings, interpretation, and even engineering, as the Denon issues were applauded for their superb sound, so even Decca’s equally successful high-fidelity technology did not necessarily represent much of an advantage. Nonetheless, make them he did, and while such as the Nielsen symphonies have remained celebrated, these Strauss recordings have somewhat sunk beneath the weight of stiff competition, so I can see why Presto would see fit to resurrect them, even if the viable options for great recordings are legion.

I always become sceptical and even a little apprehensive when a conductor’s interpretative stance in a Strauss tone poem is praised because it “avoids vulgarity” or “favours musical line over splashy effects”, because there is surely no other music which so triumphantly validates the maxim “nothing succeeds like excess”. I want grand gestures, a Big Band sound and the ear-assaulting tsunami of sound generated by the combined efforts of a hundred or more orchestral instruments in concert. This is why, as much as I admire and esteem Kempe’s Strauss, I always find it to be a tad too polite and under-stated for my taste and default to Karajan, Maazel, Ormandy – even Oue - and their ilk.

So where does Blomstedt stand in my pantheon of Strauss conductors? Well, on first hearing, it seems that in San Francisco the famous low C fanfare opening Also sprach lacks for little in majesty or impact, but you know what? The Dresden recording has greater depth, considerably more sonic clarity and essentially more gravitas. Then the long, winding melody which ensues sounds too refined, too tender with little internal tension of the kind Karajan provides. Yes; it is simply heavenly playing but not very involving. If, as a previous critic has observed, Blomstedt is primarily concerned with music line over aural impact, then this is at the expense of drama; I want and need the “showstopper” element of the kind Ormandy excelled in producing and Blomstedt’s preparation for the orchestral climaxes seems pusillanimous. That is why Ormandy’s recording was one of my Records of the Year while Blomstedt would not get a look in (review) Blomstedt’s version lacks bite and definition, a failing not helped by the broad, boomy acoustic and the soft timpani, whose sticks lack penetration.

Having read some enthusiastic reviews of this slack reading, I admit to experiencing real disappointment – and, in truth, surprise - at my first encounter with it; moving on to the supporting works I hoped for better. For comparison, I turn to the Mariss Jansons recording of Tod und Verklärung which was my Record of the Month in 2017 (review) and again, I find little here in the Blomstedt to set my pulse racing. In fact, I found it … boring, with little of the bite and snap I demand. This is some of my favourite music on earth and that is a capital offence in my eyes/to my ears. Nonetheless, there is, again, some lovely orchestral playing in the final few minutes of apotheosis: sweetly soaring strings, sonorous woodwind and dignified brass; finally, the work comes alive for the climax twenty-one minutes in, and the coda is suitably transcendent.

Finally, to Till Eulenspiegel. Despite some rather grim aspects to its comedy – not least what seems to me to be something of an over-reaction to his “merry pranks” in his being condemned to hang – it is meant to be rumbustious fun. Here Blomstedt seems much more at home; the mood is right: boisterous and brilliant with judiciously applied rubato and some exquisite orchestral playing, especially from the first violinist. In fact, this is one of the best accounts I have heard; the final four minutes are electric. However, I cannot justify endorsing this compilation as a whole on the basis of enjoying a quarter of an hour of the music, when I find the other hour to be lacklustre.

Ralph Moore

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