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Richard Strauss’sSinfonia domestica
A survey of the discography by Ralph Moore
Having stuck my neck out in my last survey to proclaim the supremacy of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, I felt emboldened to court further outrage on the part of those of delicate sensibilities by moving on to what is decidedly the brashest, most vulgar – and indeed, for some, decidedly embarrassing - of all his “tone poems”, the Sinfonia domestica, which aims to depict the pains, pleasures and turmoil in a day of “normal” - albeit hectic - family life, complete with a vivid musical depiction of marital coitus pour épater la bourgeoisie.
This was not the first time that Strauss had mined his personal life for creative purposes. Ein Heldenleben depicted his struggles as a man and artist, and two decades later in Intermezzo he put on stage a dramatised marital misunderstanding based on a real event in his own life; in between, is this work, which has always attracted a degree of contempt. There is a case for that; despite its melodic fecundity, some would maintain that the finale betrays some signs of Strauss’ inspiration and interest flagging, which is alone enough to justify its label as “first-rate second-rate Strauss”, but the only solution seems to be either to play it as if it were all first-rate or to pound us into submission with orchestral and sonic bombast. However, there is a third way, which is to bring out its subtleties – but that is rather to throw out the baby and try to drink the bathwater as if it were ambrosia…
Even if Strauss is to an extent just recycling themes noisily rather than developing them in the beginning of that fugal finale, I still enjoy the sheer noise he makes. Reposing upon my firm conviction that Western civilisation has produced no greater sound than that of a large symphony orchestra in full cry, I unashamedly revel in the excesses of this work, and those who do not may retreat to savour the effete refinements of Vaughan Williams, Delius or Debussy (all of whom, I hasten to say, I also like very much). We should also preserve a sense of humour in listening to this; we are clearly meant to perceive the extended sequence of cadences in the coda as a joke, as Strauss deliberately prolongs and delays the expected resolution, and I do indeed find its glorious cacophony to be great fun. One also finds both that ironic sense of humour and Strauss’ canny gift for attracting public attention in his famous statement, ““I don’t see why I shouldn’t write a symphony about myself. I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.” This is a young man, brimful of confidence and cocking a snook at the stuffy Establishment by daring to elevate the quotidian and mundane as High Art.
The “symphony” does indeed ostensibly adhere to the traditional four-part structure but is really more of a sequence of vignettes of highly varied character, more like the Alpine Symphony. There are marked changes of mood and pace within the “movements”, such as in the Scherzo which ends with a lullaby based on Mendelssohn’s "Venetian Boat Song". Despite my insistence on pace and momentum, I acknowledge that the best performances do not simply rely on ear-bashing; there are always opportunities for the application of subtleties, such as in the Wiegenlied and Adagio, when the orchestra must be able to pull back from the general commotion and effect a sudden diminuendo to play passages pianissimo. There are even such moments in the predominantly raucous finale with its essentially meretricious, magniloquent fugue – but what a show-piece it is.
There are something like thirty recordings in the catalogue; here on MusicWeb, there are currently twenty-five reviews of eighteen of those recordings (see the “masterworks” index here), and while I have not covered absolutely every recording, the twenty-six recordings I review below represent a fairly comprehensive sampling. I am not aware of having omitted any outstanding version. Most frequently represented here is Zubin Mehta, who over his long career has made something of a speciality of this work, performing and recording it frequently, but I find only one of his four recordings below to be a top contender. I wish Giuseppe Sinopoli had made a recording of it, too; he would surely have relished its cathartic opportunities.
I have included several historical, mono versions for interest but ultimately a first recommendation for such a sonic blockbuster has to be in the best sound. Having said that, going by the sonic excellence of, for example, Reiner’s 1957 recording, I hardly needed to restrict my recommendation to more recent, digital accounts.
(The German spelling variant of “Symphonia” is sometimes employed in the titles of recordings.)
The Recordings Richard Strauss/Wiener Philharmoniker, 1944 DG – live mono
As with the next recording reviewed below, this can be recommended only to those with an adventurous taste for historical recordings and a tolerance for antiquated, wavery recorded sound, but if we bear in mind just how old and removed this live recording is, we can see it as a treasured relic. This is a sharp, witty performance, which is often beautifully played and does not reflect Strauss’ famously impassive, “time-beating” conducting style – it is sensitively moulded and marked by frequent, felicitous rubato touches; there is real passion here, such that we can partly overlook the shrieking violins and metallic blare – but I repeat; this is for hardened buffs only.
Wilhelm Furtwängler/Berlin Philharmoniker, 1944 History (Maestro Classico vol. 2) - live mono
Typically, Furtwängler interprets the music with tremendous verve and freedom, treating it as if it were a masterpiece. The sound is brittle but better than it might have been, as by this stage the Nazis were pioneering the use of magnetic tape rather than wax disc or metal cutting. There are tuning issues and much heedless coughing, which prevent it from being a recommended to the general listener other than as a historical curiosity, but the warmth and Schwung of its delivery is enough to capture both our attention and our imagination. As ever, it is remarkable to hear such music-making by Furtwängler, battling to preserve the best of German culture against a back drop of the darkest days of war. The sheer sweep, drive and propulsion of the playing are riveting and, in a way, this influences my response to every subsequent recording, as I seek the same level of commitment. Perhaps only Karajan reaches that level and not even he finds the same level of orgasmic release in the love-making music around eight minutes in to the Adagio or the exaltation of the conclusion – although of course he has the inestimable advantage of great stereo sound directed by Michel Glotz. I even like the heavy, pulsing vibrato of the solo violin – so redolent of a bygone age – and the almost hysterical abandon of the horns in the last bars. Perhaps this is only for buffs and Strauss completists - but I love it.
Clemens Krauss/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1951 Testament - studio mono
This is another historical recording of limited appeal to the general punter but certainly of interest to the aficionado. It is a lean, incisive account, both sonically and artistically, and features an orchestra and conductor who knew their way around Strauss’ music: Krauss was Strauss’ protégé, champion and friend and the VPO play on no fewer than six of the recordings considered here.
We should remember that not only did this recording have an impressive pedigree and provenance, but it was for several years the only studio recording available in relatively modern sound and as such deserves respect. Certainly I admire the way in which Krauss sculpts phrases, grades dynamics and imparts wit and charm to the playful moments, tenderness to the love music and dynamism to the finale. Despite good remastering, the sound is still thin, peaky and lacking in bass resonance but it remains very listenable for the partnership of Krauss and the VPO. It’s almost good enough to make me forgive Clemens Krauss the worst combover before Bobby Charlton…
Clemens Krauss and Richard Strauss
Franz Konwitschny/Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, 1956 DG - studio mono
Konwitschny isn't that well known to collectors today unless they are familiar with a couple of his recordings like the EMI Tannhäuser made surely before his untimely death (perhaps hastened by his alcoholism). Nonetheless, he was director of two famous East German orchestras in Leipzig and Dresden and also ran the Berlin State Opera, so he was an important musical figure in the 50's. This recording allows us to hear him directing an excellent performance in slightly unusual repertoire.
I don't think for one minute that one could mistake this hissy, distant mono recording for stereo but it is clear and detailed enough to allow us to hear how subtle, refined and flexible Konwitschny's conducting is; he brings a light touch to this humorous, ironic jeu d'esprit. This is a relaxed, fluid account which nonetheless rises to the big moments - so essential if Strauss the showman is to get his due. The climax of the finale, with its great whooping horns, is thrilling.
Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1956 Sony - studio stereo
The quality here is extraordinarily satisfying; almost no allowances have to be made for the age of the recording, which has been remastered so vividly with just a hint of residual hum remaining. That sound is complemented by the splendour of the Chicago Symphony; Reiner had the gift of training his virtuoso orchestra into a razor-sharp ensemble without crushing its sense of adventure and spontaneity, so you get to hear performances which combine the advantages of both studio recording and live playing.
Interestingly, Reiner goes for the third option I mention in my introduction and aims for refinement and delicacy, a decision vindicated by beauty of the orchestral playing, especially in the woodwind section; the balances and sonority of the central Adagio passage are exquisite. As such, the work emerges as much less bombastic than normal; this is the recording for the listener who wants to savour the subtleties of Strauss’ orchestration. Of course, the corollary to that approach is that the ...ahem…climaxes are slightly tame, yet Reiner still packs a punch in the conclusion to the finale.
Dimitri Mitropoulos/Wiener Philharmoniker, 1957 Orfeo - live mono
For all his famed dynamism, Mitropoulos was rarely served by good recordings and sadly this live one is no exception, being a harsh, shallow, mono radio broadcast recorded at low volume complete with intrusive coughs, so it is sadly of real interest only to devotees of his output, given that there are so many options available in best digital sound.
The listener can at least hear the excitement of a live Mitropoulos concert, though you cannot just dip in, as Orfeo has issued the whole thing on one track without cues. Surprisingly, sometimes the VPO strings and, especially, the winds are out of tune – or perhaps that’s because of tape fluctuation? - but for the most part this is a vivid account, typical of Mitropoulos’ energised manner, swift and pointed where necessary but also suitably relaxed in the lyrical sections, with a surging release and rhythmic flexibility which are typical of the conductor’s overt emotionalism. The finale is a riot and I could only wish it were captured in better sound. For all its virtues, those primitive sonics disqualify it from recommendation.
Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1960 Pristine Audio - live stereo
I reviewed this on MusicWeb in 2019; the following is an adapted extract from that review:
The first pleasant surprise for the listener here is the excellence of the stereo radio broadcast sound, revived, cleansed and enhanced by Andrew Rose’s typically expert and sensitive XR remastering; one would hardly believe that this recording is sixty years old.
Nothing I say will reconcile those who find Strauss bombastic and self-absorbed to the attractions of this great sprawling narration but I love the music and was intrigued to hear how the arch-French stylist Munch would tackle it. If you treat the overtly autobiographical elements of Strauss's paean to himself and his married, family life as a metaphor for universal, human, domestic experience the whole piece becomes less embarrassing. In any case, the music itself is so spectacular that it transcends its personal origins. It's true that there are occasionally too many ideas which seem too recognisable from acquaintance with Strauss’ more popular works but its gamut of moods and modes is nonetheless very satisfying - and the tunes are simply glorious.
Munch exhibits great intensity and control. Far from being too refined, he captures the Schwung and bravado of Strauss’ domestic epic; indeed, some of the playing is a tad rough and ready, especially in the brass section, but he was a conductor who valued inspiration over polish. His approach is slow-burn and very effective; he keeps his powder dry during the earlier scenes of domestic calm and bliss interspersed with humorous ructions, then gradually moves via the Wiegenlied through the Adagio from leisurely languor into the depiction of the rapture of conjugal bliss which so discomfited and even outraged the New York critics at its premiere. The absurdly prolonged and pot-boiling finale is, I think, an extended joke on Strauss’ part and I certainly enjoy the way Munch has the brass lean into those absurd, prolonged fanfares and risk a few more bloopers rather than play safe.
George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra, 1964 Sony - studio stereo
I have owned this recording for years, first on cassette and then on CD and it is definitely one of my desert-island discs for both sentimental and aesthetic reasons. It seems inconceivable that Columbia recorded this nearly sixty years ago; the music fairly leaps out of the speakers. Occasionally Szell’s exhortative grunts are audible but they are merely indicative of the passion he communicates to his players.
This is one of the fastest performances on record and none the worse for that. Szell was a master of the Straussian idiom and makes the best possible case for this awkward work; this is a thrilling, exhilarating, life-enhancing performance and I always feel like punching the air and shouting "Yes!" when I reach the end of it, it is so remorselessly driven yet still joyous. Intonation, dynamics, precision in ensemble here are all just wondrous and the violin solo is a virtuoso highlight. Despite the speed and directness of his approach, Szell finds a really Romantic, singing quality in the Adagio and the big moments are spectacular. Finally, for all his reputation as being dour and humourless, Szell had a wry, sarcastic sense of humour and clearly relishes the wittiest and most protracted conclusion since Beethoven's Fifth.
Zubin Mehta/Los Angeles Philharmonic. 1968, Decca - studio stereo
I think this, Mehta’s earliest recording of the four here, is in many ways his best. First, no compromises have to be made for the sound, despite it being well over fifty years old as I write. It is quite bass-heavy, but not unpleasantly so, and there is tremendous sense of space about it. Nor do I notice any deficiency at all in the orchestral playing compared with the great orchestras such as the BPO, VPO et al; the orchestra creates a cushion of warm sound, the strings being especially suave, and the oboe, violin and horn solos are all charming. Regarding the youthful Mehta’s pacing and phrasing, this is considerably livelier than, for example his subsequent VSO, BPO and LPO recordings. The tender moments are beautifully gauged; Mehta maintains a steady pace without pulling the music about too much so there is always a sense of lilting, forward motion. That leaves the question of whether he can pull off the Big Moments – and he does; this is grand, fearless playing of sweep and style. Mehta builds up a head of steam during the last five minutes of the finale to rival the efforts of Karajan and Szell and his orchestra keeps up with him. The combined expansiveness and drive of the conclusion are simply stunning.
I am pleased to note that the opinion of my MusicWeb colleague Simon Thompson chimes with mine, as per his review of the Decca collection of tone poems back in 2009.
Rudolf Kempe/ Staatskapelle Dresden, 1972 EMI/Warner/Brilliant - studio stereo
This is a light, fleet account of the Sinfonia, which reminds me more than any other of its kinship in mood and thematic material with Till Eulenspiegel. It is a graceful, genial performance and the Dresdeners show their class by the frequency with which they can turn on a sixpence/dime to play quietly and delicately. The nasal solo oboe is especially beguiling of tone and the sound is as fine as one could wish: warm, spacious, well balanced and detailed.
Although Kempe follows Reiner in seeking out the refinement in the score and bringing out the complex instrumental lines, he still manages – more successfully than Reiner, I think – to find both grandeur and pathos in it. My reading of various reviews elsewhere suggests that this is many people’s favourite and I can see why; there is something very human and lovable about it; the Wiegenlied and Adagio are especially tender and rapturous. For me, in the more rumbustious passages, the last ounce of abandon is missing, such as I find in Karajan and Szell, but Kempe builds so magnificently in the last five minutes of the finale, aided by an orchestra on fire, that it is only by virtue of odious comparisons that I would find him in the least wanting. The last great chord is like a pistol shot – thrilling.
Zubin Mehta/ Wiener Philharmoniker, 1972Vienna Philharmonic Records - live stereo
This is a conventionally timed performance, although Mehta’s approach is broad and spacious and the playing in general is lovely. He is good at encouraging his soloists to emphasise, in their swoops and trills, the humour of those motifs depicting discord and fractiousness, but compared with the finest versions there is something of the flat and routine about it. Just occasionally, Mehta could “phone in” performances and there is decidedly a lack of inner tension in the sweeping lines of the Adagio; I miss the coiled eroticism generated by the likes of Furtwängler and too much of the music here emerges as slack and never really takes off, even in the final (where the trumpets are unaccountably thin and strained and the horns tentative). I made the mistake of playing it straight after listening to the Karajan…
The live sound is fine sharp and brilliant, well-balanced with a sense of air around the instruments and just a little coughing. It is not widely available, being the VPO’s own label available on their website but is not, in any case, a contender; his previous recording only four years earlier with the LAPO is far preferable.
Herbert von Karajan/BPO, 1973 EMI - studio stereo
Surely even his most ardent and prejudiced detractors will allow Karajan his pre-eminence as a Strauss conductor, especially in those recordings he made with the Berlin Philharmonic for both EMI and DG in the 70' and 80's. In any case, the debate is hardly worth having, as two generations of collectors will affirm; this 1973 recording of the Sinfonia Domestica is one of the most compelling he ever made, not only for its sheer glamour and élan but because it makes the strongest possible case for Strauss's problem child work which to this day still does not enjoy parity of esteem with its fellow tone poems.
Personally, I have always loved the heedless excess of this music since I first heard the classic recording by Szell and the Cleveland on Sony but the sheer lustrous, sumptuousness of sound here and the command of Karajan's direction make this recording a front-runner in any survey, alongside Szell. The virtuosity of every section of the orchestra is extraordinary and Karajan finds brilliance, power and even exaltation in the music.
It is not technically perfect – there is a split note from the trumpet and Karajan refused a re-take but that is true of another top Strauss recording by Karajan, his Alpensinfonie – and indeed of his best recordings in general; he would always tolerate negligible flaws if the spirit of the recording satisfied him. Otherwise, we may revel in the full-fat, deeply upholstered, hot-house lush - choose your cliché – sound of the Berlin Philharmonic; no other orchestra is so tonally opulent, especially in those long, arcing, extended phrases which link the end of the Scherzo with the opening of the Adagio, where Karajan’s legato is so seductive. The sheer glory of the playing is enough to paper over the banality of some of Strauss’ material in the opening of the finale and sustain momentum through to a climax which sounds as overwhelmingly grand as any Strauss wrote. (I also think armchair critics forget how much more impact this music makes live than on a recording – although it is still the case that we don’t get that many chances to hear this work played live.)
It is strange that Karajan, who frequently returned to the studio to re-record works by favourite composers over his long career, never re-recorded this work with Deutsche Grammophon, but, the technical glitch apart, EMI gave this recording the finest sound, now re-mastered to reduce background hiss, balance instruments better, tame the glare on strings and lift the sense of presence and immediacy. Recorded in the Salle Wagram, its slight resonance and sense of space and distance, is more suggestive of a concert hall than more closely miked, mixed and balanced modern digital recordings - and there is nothing wrong with that. Coming straight to this recording from re-listening to the famous Szell account only underlined for me the differences in their approach: Szell’s is brilliantly spotlighted, Karajan’s all chiaroscuro – and I love both.
Lorin Maazel/Wiener Philharmoniker, 1983 DG - live digital
Maazel specialised in Strauss and here combines sophistication with thrust; the VPO could hardly make a nobler sound but they generate plenty of torque, too. As ever, their plangent, grainy woodwind provide special pleasure and their playing in the Wiegenlied is especially tender. My only reservation is that the VPO are a little staid at climaxes in comparison with their more released counterpart in Berlin for Karajan – or indeed Furtwängler thirty years before; there is a tangible diminution in grip and tension half way through the finale, just when they should be ramping up; fortunately, Maazel recovers in time, even if he never reaches the heights of Karajan.
The original 1983 issue of this live performance should be avoided; the one to go for is this 1995 re-mastering on DG Masters, which removed the glassy, shrill overlay so common to the earliest of DG's attempts to conquer the challenges of the CD format. The live sound here is excellent: warm and vivid, matching any other of my favourite recordings.
Zubin Mehta/Berliner Philharmoniker, 1985 CBS - studio digital
Supremely competent as this is, it misses the élan of Mehta’s earliest recording in Los Angeles, sounding relatively cautious and polished in comparison with the daring release of that youthful venture. It is of course exquisitely – sometimes even delicately – played but simply lacks the fire and drive which was the product of Mehta’s successful campaign to raise the profile of the LAPO on the world stage. It is tempting to remark that the BPO could sound slick and complacent without the animus of Karajan to inspire them but that’s how it sounds here to my ears. They play so sweetly – and so what? So much here is enervated and essentially routine – even boring. Make direct comparison with Karajan’s recording with them in 1973 and tell me I’m wrong…
Neeme Järvi/The Scottish National Orchestra, 1987 Chandos - studio digital
The richness and clarity of the digital sound here are immediately striking, as is the drive and precision of the playing. You would not guess that neither the conductor nor the orchestra is especially associated with this repertoire, they sound so idiomatic and at ease. The first oboe solo is not as glamorous as some – but I suppose that characterises Bubi better and overall, the orchestral playing is not as opulent as the Big-Name orchestras but Järvi directs a swift (42 minutes), no-nonsense account which bowls along nicely. Given the overall timing, I am surprised that the Cradle Song sounds a little limp; Järvi lingers too lovingly and loses the inner pulse but elsewhere his grip is secure and the love music really blooms, helped by the terrific sonics and he really gets stuck into the fugue; the Scottish brass are just terrific in that finale, despite being really pushed by Järvi’s tempo. In the end, there is not a lot more to say: there is no especial reason to favour it over even more luxurious versions but this is a fine account which took me by surprise and will disappoint no-one. Zubin Mehta/London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1988, LPO LIVE - live digital
This live concert performance was favourably reviewed by my MWI colleague Rob Maynard last year and I can endorse his recommendation but equally agree with his reservations – centring on intrusive coughing and a rather bland violin solo - which prevent this from being a top candidate.
Edo de Waart/Minnesota Orchestra, 1990 Virgin Classics - studio digital
I confess to not having had high hopes for this recording, as I have usually found the conductor to be “safe” – not a word I want to use in the context of this piece. I happened to play it immediately after listening to Sawallisch which did not work in its favour. Careful, phrasing, somewhat evened-out, flattened dynamics and a generally polite decorum characterise its execution, making the listener feel detached from the hurly-burly of the hectic Strauss family existence. There is nothing objectionable about this account, nor anything in the least memorable (c.f. Schwarz, Zinman, Janowski and Wit below). My acid test of wandering attention applies here: the emotional temperature frequently flags, especially in the passage which forms the crossover between the end of the Scherzo and the start of the Wiegenlied, where some conductors have the knack of maintaining rapt concentration and others seem to coast aimlessly. No soloist here is as individual and memorable as those in more animated versions, the strings lack warmth. The Adagio drags and the finale lacks fire until suddenly at the climax the volume is abruptly increased rather than built up to. This is the weakest performance here.
Wolfgang Sawallisch /Philadelphia Orchestra, 1993 EMI – composite live digital
My respect for Sawallisch, whom some dismiss as a “mere Kapellmeister” has increased as the years pass, especially when I consider how many of his recordings I prize - and this is another triumph. Assembled from two live concerts in Tokyo and enthusiastically applauded by the audience which is otherwise virtually silent, this account is passionate and exuberant, with terrific weight in the bass and the Philadelphia Orchestra on finest form. Every phrase is enlivened by a sense of forward motion and the lyrical sections are wonderfully rapt and flowing. This is really grand, massive orchestral playing which in many ways comes closest to sharing the sweep and sense of occasion of Karajan’s account. A simple test for me is the way in which some recordings, like this one, maintain my interest and concentration throughout and give goosebumps at climactic points, such that I hardly feel compelled to scrape around to find justifications for my endorsement of them – and this is one of those.
(The attraction of this disc is further enhanced by the inclusion of the rarely heard Festliches Präludium für Grosses Orchester und Orgel - an orgy of excess and a hoot - and a great Till Eulenspiegel.)
Lorin Maazel/Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, 1995 RCA Victor studio digital
At fifty minutes, Maazel takes considerably more time over this recording than he did with the VPO back in 1983 (which was under 45). As a result, this is rather leisurely for my taste, beautifully played though it is, and some of Maazel’s application of rubato is rather self-conscious and wilful, as could sometimes be the case with his conducting, and that further holds up the momentum of music. I find that undue lingering tends to expose the diffuse and dilatory nature of this work and the solution is to push on, concentrating on propulsion as well as beauty of sound. The latter is certainly to be heard frequently here; the BRSO has long been one of the finest bands in the world and its claim to be “an orchestra of soloists” is vindicated by the playing of the oboe portraying Bubi (the Strauss’ infant son), the first violin (the volatile Pauline Strauss) and the cello (Strauss himself). The love music is indulgently caressed I am still carried away by such artistry but again, for me, it lacks thrust, begins to stall and the dimension of wild elation is missing.
Sonic pulchritude is not everything in this music; there has to be a steel core to it, too, and I look elsewhere for that. André Previn/Wiener Philharmoniker, 1995 DG - live digital
Its superb “4D Audio sonics” – pretty much meaningless marketing jargon, I would guess, but nonetheless indicative of excellent digital sound – distinguish this recording, which is yet another of Previn’s successful ventures into Strauss tone poems. Everything seems right here, so much so that I struggle to find much to say about it beyond establishing how much I enjoy it - except, perhaps, to observe that it lacks that special lift and transcendence that marks out Karajan’s account. There is such warmth and body in the orchestral sound and yet again, the VPO woodwind are especially engaging – but where is the Dionysian spark? In the end, this is a very comfortable, even sumptuous version but I am more lulled than stimulated by it. Having said that, there is a special pleasure in being taken for a stately spin in along country roads in a Rolls-Royce rather than screeching around hair-pin bends on mountain routes in a Maserati, so I must concede the appeal of Previn’s lyricism, especially in the Adagio, which is unbelievably luxurious.
To be fair, Previn presses on the accelerator in the finale and makes a glorious row in the last five minutes, and were it not for acquaintance with those recordings which find the extra dimension, I would be perfectly satisfied with this.
David Zinman/Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, 2002 – studio digital
The Tonhalle is a fine orchestra and this is on a budget label which has given us some fine recordings but I admit to being rarely a fan of David Zinman’s work and there is a prevailing blandness about this performance which sadly confirms my experience. My first impressions are of a rather slack rhythmic approach, rather than the snap and bite of versions by such as Szell, which make me sit up, and the acoustic here is rather blurred and reverberant, adding to that imprecision. Soloists do not leap out, the character motifs do not make much impact and the finale is devoid of inspiration. Of course, any orchestra that can get through this daunting music without mishap is admirable and music such as this when well played cannot fail to engage the listener, but I am left with the impression of a very competent run-through of a piece which means little to the performers. I can think of no reason why the prospective purchase should opt for this thin gruel when so many more attractive options beckon. Sorry.
Gerard Schwarz/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, 2002 Avie - live composite digital
Colin Clarke reviewed this positively back in 2005, remarking on its “echt-Straussian” feeling and excellent soloists. Be that as it may, where we disagree is over pacing and tempi. I find Schwarz’s response to the score ponderous, without the vim and vigour I need and hear in, for example, Szell. Everything is heavily underlined and made too clear, like a patient, boring teacher over-explaining to a dim class. The overall timing of 48 minutes is not exceptionally slow but that fits with the careful approach and none of my favourite versions is so leisurely. The gentle sections are lovingly played and if you want clarity and repose, this is for you, but those are not the qualities I first seek in a successful recording of this madcap work. The finale is very grand and ponderous but the blurting brass are audibly taxed and the mood is all wrong; this is not Also Sprach Zarathustra or Eine Alpensinfonie and it lacks the frantic, hell-for-leather impetus required – and, indeed, the sense of fun. Dull.
Antoni Wit/Staatskapelle Weimar, 2007 Naxos - studio digital
This begins carefully and deliberately, then proceeds in much the same vein throughout a fairly leisurely 47 minutes. To some ears, this account will appear “richly spacious”, to others rather leaden-footed. On first hearing, after seven or eight minutes and in every section thereafter, I kept waiting for Wit to get going and evince some passion, especially in the erotic passages, which are frankly soporific rather than ecstatic. Wit finally gets going a couple of minutes into the Adagio and gives us some ardour but then lets the emotional temperature drop down to lukewarm again. Likewise, the finale simply lacks zest compared with Szell; the fugue plods and halfway through I thought we were going to plough into the sand and stop altogether. Wit is so dilatory - and we never get that sense of excitement derived from wondering whether the brass can keep up; listen to Clemens Krauss or Mitropoulos for that! Yes, the concluding couple of minutes are grand and the Weimar orchestra plays superbly but it’s all rather too late.
As ever with modern orchestras, there is much fine, flawless playing and the digital sound is unimpeachable – but that simply isn’t enough to do justice to this kaleidoscopic piece.
Sebastian Weigle/Frankfurter Opern-und Museumsorchester, 2012 Oehms Classics – studio digital
My colleague Rob Maynard very favourably reviewed this release back in 2014.
He observes that it is “a little more leisurely” than established favourites but “so engrossing an interpretation and so very beautifully played and finely recorded” that it works. It is indeed very well
directed and balanced; an exceptional clarity is imparted by both the conductor and the engineers, such that the listener is engrossed by the amount of detail thereby revealed. Some recordings taken this slowly are simply…well, too slow…but Weigle keeps a firm grip on the melodic line and the narrative unfolds without longueurs.
That leaves the question of whether Weigle & co. can rise to the big moments. The Frankfurt orchestra does not necessarily sound as grand and hefty as some of the Big-League Bands but its colours and dynamics are so artfully controlled as to beguile the ear constantly and in the louder, livelier passages the depth and brilliance of the recording lends weight and impact to the orchestra’s presence. Having said that, Weigle does not quite conjure up the weight of sound to thrill the listener like Szell, Karajan and Sawallisch in the peroration and coda but his brass are fearless, the timpani thunderous and there is a steady ratcheting up of tension over the last five minutes which bears testimony to the integrity of Weigle’s over-arching vision and delivers a truly satisfying climax.
It is hard to put one’s finger on exactly why Weigle succeeds where comparable, recent, digital recordings by Zinman, Schwarz, Wit and Janowski are lacking; I can only suggest that you sample and compare them on YouTube to see if your taste concurs with mine.
Marek Janowski/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Pentatone 2012 – studio digital
John Whitmore favourably reviewed this in 2015, rightly remarking on its “clean articulation and detailed execution” and characterising it, in contrast with the Karajan version as “semi-skinned” as opposed to “full fat”. It is moderately paced at 45 minutes and, as with so many more modern, digital recordings, in finest sound but somewhat anonymous interpretatively, as with Zinman, Schwarz and Wit above. I really would like a bit more pep and drive and have observed the same of pervious Janowski recordings which are often wholly unobjectionable and equally unmemorable.
In many ways, although he maintains momentum better and is certainly superior to Zinman, Janowski is similar to Schwarz in that he finds grandeur, gravitas and tenderness in the score, but underplays the excitement. I do appreciate that by no means all of this score requires gung-ho fervour – so much of it is in fact lightly scored and lyrical in content - but the concerted, forte, ensemble climaxes must make their mark, too, and I cannot really see how it is possible to overstate the deliberate bombast of those passages. The last five minutes of the finale here are, comparatively speaking, a non-event; there is absolutely no elation in its delivery – it’s just fast.
So yes: tastefully played, flawlessly engineered – and ultimately bland. François-Xavier Roth/SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, 2014 SWR MUSIC – studio digital
I refer you again to Rob Maynard’s review for his verdict on this recording.
During his five-year tenure as Principal Conductor to the Baden-Baden orchestra, Roth recorded all the tone poems to acclaim. This mercifully taut, swift account of the Sinfonia is in the Szell vein, sharp and witty with some virtuosic solo work as with the very agile oboe and flute work in the Scherzo, but he relaxes engagingly in the Wiegenlied and Adagio to voluptuous effect yet still without dragging and never loses sight of the sensual, hedonic dimension of the music. That impetus is carried over into the finale which is riveting yet skilfully embraces the central moments of repose without dropping the thread. As with Weigle, this modern orchestra does not produce the massive, overwhelming body of sound we hear from the BPO with Karajan and Mehta but is nonetheless satisfyingly weighty and still beefy enough to convey the element of Bacchanalian hysteria essential to a successful delivery of the prolonged coda. Listening to this version confirmed for me the difference between a version which retains its focus and my attention and recordings which bore me.
The sound does not employ the multi-miking, spotlit technique we hear in some recent recordings but has a warmer, broader ambience more suggestive of the true acoustic of the Konzerthaus Freiburg venue than the studio, which means that detail is not as sharp as in the Weigle recording but seems more naturalistic. I have to say that different though they are both sonically and interpretatively, I can hardly choose between those two modern versions as I enjoy them both almost equally, but for home listening Weigle permits more detail to be heard.
Sometimes when I attempt a survey of a major work, I conclude by observing that one or two recordings stand head and shoulders above others in the field, but in this case, as with my previous conspectus of Eine Alpensinfonie, there is a veritable scrum of contenders jostling for attention; Strauss’ tone poems do seem to attract and bring out the best in great performers. As a result, I am almost embarrassed by the number of recordings I feel compelled to endorse – which range over fifty years of recording history - and I apologise if I am muddying the waters by recommending so many. The first four are my top, stand-out favourites and those in the second category might be considered just as attractive as my primary preferences:
Karajan 1973 EMI*
Szell 1964 Sony
Mehta 1968 Sony
Sawallisch Philadelphia 1993
After Previn in 1996, there is a whole clutch of recordings about which I find myself repeating much the same things, centring on their suffering from what used to be called “the English Disease” of emotional constipation – or at least “the stiff upper lip syndrome” whereby emotions are kept on a tight leash. I wearied of listening to recording after recording in which the lyrical music was given its full due but the riotous passages were sold short – presumably for fear of courting garish vulgarity. I find it ironic that although Karajan has long been the subject of the criticism that he smoothed over contrasts and valued homogeneity of sound over clarity and drama, and Szell was excoriated for his icy, mechanical objectivity, to my ears both their recording display precisely the risk-taking release that many more recent recordings singularly lack. Many of my main recommendations are venerable, but I find it encouraging that I have been able to recommend two relatively recent recordings with lesser-known conductors and orchestras in Weigle and the clumsily named Frankfurter Opern-und Museumsorchester, and Roth with
the SWR Sinfonieorchester.