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Strauss orchestral TCO0004
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Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Macbeth, Op. 23 (1886-88, rev. 1889-1891)
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888-89)
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1894-95)
The Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, 7-17 October 2021, Mandel Concert Hall, Severance Music Center, Cleveland

This latest release from the Cleveland Orchestra on their own label usefully couples three early Strauss tone poems. It’s a moot point whether the earlier Aus Italien, Op 16 (1886) should be included in the tone poem canon: probably not, since Strauss called it an ‘Orchestral Fantasy in Four Movements’. Aus Italien was one of the works included in the inaugural release on this label. My colleague, Mark Jordan was, understandably, not too impressed with the piece itself but approved of the performance (review).

Like Aus Italien, Macbeth is not too often played. Even so, I was somewhat surprised to find that the Cleveland Orchestra, an ensemble much associated with Strauss, not least in the Szell era, had never played it prior to the five performances in October 2021 from which this recording is taken. Strauss actually began work on Macbeth before he started Don Juan but the latter was finished - and performed – first, which explains why it has a lower opus number. As Hugh Macdonald justly observes in his programme note on Macbeth, Strauss was “still finding his way” in the tone poem genre. That said, there’s much to admire in it. I haven’t heard it for quite some time and I was surprised to be reminded how many tiny melodic fragments are heard which later crop up in subsequent tone poems: Straussian fingerprints, if you will. It’s a highly compressed work, playing for 16:29 in this performance, and I wonder whether, had Strauss composed it a few years later and with greater self-confidence as a tone poet, he might have developed the characterisations and depiction of events at more length and given us a longer work. Having said that, the conciseness of the score is no bad thing, I think.

Though I agree that Strauss was “finding his way”, it comes across as a confident composition in this performance; Strauss displays a lot of assurance in the handling both of his material and the orchestra, which includes triple woodwind, a full brass complement (including bass trumpet) and strings. Even at this relatively early stage in his career the orchestration is inventive, illustrative and colourful. I found the performance very convincing: Franz Welser-Möst conducts with evident conviction and the Clevelanders play superbly. Just recently, I’ve invested in the new DG set of Strauss orchestral works conducted by Andris Nelsons. It was interesting to compare and contrast this very taut and dynamic performance with the DG recording on which Nelsons conducts the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Nelsons’ is a somewhat more spacious reading, playing for 20:02. Though he takes longer over the score than does Welser-Möst, I detected no lack of thrust and drama in Nelsons’ reading and his is a slightly darker conception of the music. I admired both recordings very much. Though I have a slight preference for Nelsons’ compelling sense of drama and narrative, the Welser-Möst performance is also very impressive and offers a different perspective on the score.

In an essay accompanying the recordings Franz Welser-Möst comments about Don Juan that “according to Strauss’s own metronome markings, [it] is really in a single tempo throughout”. That basic pulse is full of energy in this performance, right from the piece’s quicksilver opening. There’s no want of feeling in the ripely lyrical passages, but Welser-Möst never risks appearing indulgent. The love music (from 6:06) is introduced by a most poetic solo oboe and develops beautifully from there until the horns end the languor by uproariously declaiming the Don’s theme again (8:52). From then on, Welser-Möst never allows momentum to flag; this is headlong hedonism until almost the very end of the piece. It’s a virtuoso account of Don Juan which I admired and enjoyed very much, not least on account of the flamboyance of the playing. In his new DG set, Nelsons plays this work also with the Gewandhausorchester and, as was the case with Macbeth, he takes longer over the score than Welser-Möst (20:15 as against 15:11). The difference in timing is substantial but whereas I thought it worked in Macbeth, here I’m not so sure. Right from the start Nelsons takes the music at a steadier pace and I miss the degree of drive and panache that Welser-Möst offers. Nelsons’ performance is very beautiful in the love music – here and elsewhere the Leipzigers offer peerless playing – but overall, he doesn’t match the excitement that is generated in Cleveland. Out of interest, I dug out the 2011 live recording which Nelsons made with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I liked that recording a lot (review). It’s rather tauter than the Leipzig remake and on that basis I prefer Nelsons’ earlier effort, which seems to me to be closer in spirit to the Welser-Möst reading.

There’s much less to choose between Welser-Möst and Nelsons when it comes to Till Eulenspiegel, so I’ll focus on the Cleveland performance. Strauss presents a vivid portrayal of the exploits of his eponymous hero and the Cleveland Orchestra delivers the goods in a performance that is full of wit and energy. Welser-Möst leads a reading that has all the panache and swagger you could wish for. If Strauss was feeling his way in Macbeth then, my goodness, by the time he got to Till he had certainly found his feet. This work is a dazzling display of musical tone painting. It’s also a miracle of compression with a plethora of events crammed into a short, exhilarating time span. The Cleveland Orchestra revels in the music; the horn section is on superb collective form but, then, the entire orchestra displays great virtuosity. I liked this performance a lot.

The disc has a short playing time, but when it comes to value for money that lies in the quality of the playing and interpretations; these are out of the top drawer. The performances have been recorded in brilliant, very present sound which has great impact (I listened to the stereo layer of the SACD). It’s a hallmark of the Cleveland Orchestra’s releases to date that the presentation is high-quality. Here, we have excellent notes by Hugh Macdonald and Eric Sellen as well as valuable insights in a note by Franz Welser-Möst. The comprehensive nature of the documentation even extends to reproducing the lines from Nikolaus Lenau’s poem on which Strauss based Don Juan; this is printed in German with an English translation.

I enjoyed this disc very much. It’s a fine addition to the Cleveland Orchestra’s discography and shows that its Strauss tradition is very much alive.

John Quinn

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