Download Sound: ★★★★★ | Performance: ★★★☆☆ | Volume One of Petrenko’s Oslo cycle of Richard Strauss’s tone poems featured a rather bland performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra that went nowhere convincingly, and Ein Heldenleben, which was better, but hardly in the same class as John Barbirolli (BBC Legends), Thomas Beecham, Bernard Haitink (Philips) or Willem Mengelberg. So how does he fare in arguably Strauss’s three greatest orchestral works?
Taking them in reverse order. Till Eulenspiegel needs more sparkle and rhythmic definition in the first section, which contains the main themes used to outline Till’s character in this elaborate rondo. He then causes mayhem by riding through a market at full pelt, and here Petrenko, compared to Rudolf Kempe and the Berlin Philharmonic, is too slow and careful. The mock sermon is better, but George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra are even more characterful, and so it goes on. There is some superb playing, Petrenko – aided by the marvellous sound – clarifies textures, sometimes contrasting chamber-like delicacy with passages of power and weight, but it’s all a bit too safe and the competition is too strong to allow for anything other than greatness.
Don Juan is similar, yes in the first romantic encounter (if it be such, Strauss specifically stated this was not programme music) the violin solo is beautifully characterised and there are sculpted singing string lines with rasping brass interjections, but after the horn theme’s first forte appearance the music-making loses focus and the tension slips (it’s not so much a matter of tempo, as a lack of concentration). And again waiting in the wings we have Szell, Fritz Reiner and Herbert von Karajan (VPO version) who are in a different class.
Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character (which dates from 1897) tells the tale of an old man suffering from some form of rapidly progressing senile dementia, who takes his understandably reluctant manservant Sancho Panza on a journey in search of knightly renown and his imaginary ideal love Dulcinea del Toboso, where he completely loses ‘it’ and does various ridiculous things such as attacking windmills, sheep and a bunch of pilgrims, who he thinks are kidnappers, before dying. The work has an Introduction, Theme, ten variations and Finale and as there are a number of leitmotifs the Theme of the title is an idea not a tune. Strauss vividly portrays the protagonist’s exploits using brilliant orchestration – including a wind machine – depicts his disintegrating personality and sanity by wandering in out of tonality, making extensive use of chromaticism and flitting from theme to theme. Sancho Panza is portrayed via the viola with contributions from the bass clarinet and tuba, Quixote the solo cello.
To hold all of this together the conductor needs from the first bar to create an unerring, underlying sense of tension and movement and think in paragraphs, not bullet-points. More than any other Arturo Toscanini understood this when he and the NBC Symphony Orchestra partnered the great Emanuel Feuermann in concert in 1938 and this remains hors concours, especially as it has recently been superbly remastered by Pristine Classical in 24bit/48kHz sound, nevertheless given the works kaleidoscopic orchestration you really need it in stereo, which means Rudolf Kempe’s 1958 account with the Berlin Philharmonic, Paul Tortelier and Giusto Cappone, which sounds best on a World Record Club reissue as opposed to the original £150 ASD LP, but is also on an Artist Profile EMI CD featuring the conductor.
At the start of the Introduction there is a sprightly woodwind led tune which is beautifully played by both orchestras, as is Dulcinea’s theme on solo oboe and each of the ensuing motifs is also equally well characterised, but Petrenko, who is also slower, cannot match Kempe’s effortless ability to segue from section to section, so the music becomes episodic, nor does he have his command and charisma; in effect with Kempe you know you are listening to a great conductor. When Tortelier enters he is far less interventionist then say Pierre Fournier, but using beautifully controlled vibrato and effortless bowing, creates a flow of gorgeous sound, which captures Quixote’s innate nobility, gentleness and ridiculousness and behind every note there is a sense of quiet melancholy, all of which I’m afraid makes Louisa Tuck (the orchestras first cello) sound rather non-descript. Much the same applies when you compare the Sanchos; Giusto Cappone has far more character than Catherine Bullock (the orchestras principle viola) and the wonderful sense of conversation he and Tortelier create at the beginning of Variation 3 is beyond the players. Crucially at the start of the death scene Tortelier’s phrasing brings a lump to the throat, he then soars on a bed of glorious orchestral sound and seems to improvise the final page. This is incredibly great cello playing, which makes Tuck sound uninvolved.
Turning to the sound, three different formats were compared, a standard CD, 24bit/192kHz, and DSD512 downloads. Very shortly I will be doing a guide to high-definition sound, but briefly for the downloads you need a digital analogue convertor (DAC) that is able to play, without compressing the sound, DXD and DSD512, with the latter in native format (that is without filtering) and suitable software, such as HQPlayer, Foobar (which is fiddly, but free) or J River.
CDs have been around since the early 1980s and even with advances in digital recording technology they remain what they are, a hopelessly compressed 16bit/44.1kHz format that can’t store sufficient 0s and 1s, which is what every digital file is made of, to come anywhere near reproducing anything so complex as a musical instrument, human voice, or a hall’s acoustic signature. On this recording you get an image that has depth, some sense of space around the players, and plenty of definition, but the instrumental timbres are a thin approximation and the sound lacks presence and projection. Compared to many other CDs it’s pretty good, but in absolute terms it’s a non-starter.
Things improve hugely when you turn to the 24bit version, where leaving aside technical issues, the download at 2.5GB is about three times larger than the disc and suddenly the instruments have more body, the dynamic range appears to be better, there is a greater sense of the hall acoustic and the image comes alive.
Then there is the DSD512, which is a whopping 24.6GB and here you have the Oslo Philharmonic and the soloists in front of you, the image having huge presence and projection, the acoustic is tangible and the instruments have a vibrancy that almost matches golden-age analogue LPs; this is great walk-in sound that everyone should hear.
There is, however, a presentational issue in that despite the booklet listing Don Quixote as having 14 tracks, both the CD and downloads have one track per work. Exactly the same happened with Ein Heldenleben in Volume 1 and one can only presume that someone has decided that listeners don’t need cues as this might encourage them to only listen to part of a work. If this is the case it is misguided, all the majors subdivide these works and LAWO should do the same, how paying customers listen to music has nothing to do with them.