Feature CD Review – Richard Strauss Eloquence

Written by: Neil S. Croondas

The Australia-based Eloquence label has ‘inside’ access to the bulging catalogues of Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Philips. On the releases below, a selection of Richard Strauss’s music is performed by stellar artists…

Nine CDs, eight of them coupled as pairs give a handsome overview of Richard Strauss’s orchestral and songs-with-orchestra output. These budget-priced releases are generously coupled, excellently annotated and attractively presented.

Aus Italien was an early entry into Strauss’s composing career (it’s his Opus 16). Vladimir Ashkenazy and The Cleveland Orchestra (in 1990) are fine advocates for this Italy-inspired, four-movement work, a mix of symphony and fancy that has much beauty and exuberance. By contrast, Strauss’s music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is brilliantly deft and expressively pointed – or at least is from the Vienna Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel (1966) with an all-star ‘piano trio’ of Friedrich Gulda, Willi Boskovsky and Emanuel Brabec. Those two works share a disc; its companion looks to smaller orchestral forces and autumnal hues. Gordon Hunt brings spruce technique and plenty of feeling to the Oboe Concerto, while Dimitri Ashkenazy and Kim Walker make much of the rarity that is the Duet-Concertino for Clarinet and Kim Walker. Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (in 1991 recordings). By contrast, the Burleske (effectively a whimsical piano concerto) finds Jean-Yves Thibaudet revelling in the music’s unpredictability; he could not have a more cultured response than that of Herbert Blomstedt and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (in 2004). There’s a nice mix of repertoire on this release. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0404, 2 hours 22 minutes]

The tone poem Macbeth is another early work, one full of imagery and here impressively cogent and vivid from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Antal Dorati (1982, early digital). Also included on this particular twofer is the sumptuous analogue Decca sound for Zubin Mehta’s Los Angeles Philharmonic accounts of Sinfonia Domestica and An Alpine Symphony (respectively 1968 and 1975, fine performances both, quite luxuriant, often glorious). An imaginative touch is to include the curiosity that is the Parergon zur Symphonie Domestica for Piano (Left-hand) and Orchestra – get the connection! Left-hand specialist Gary Graffman is the company of the Vienna Philharmonic and André Previn on this 1995 DG recording. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0408, 2 hours 15 minutes]

The third twofer in this collection includes Bernard Haitink’s airy account of Don Quixote, with cellist Tibor de Machula noble and visionary, his Concertgebouw Orchestra colleagues responsive and faithful (1973-74). Then Eugen Jochum leads this great Dutch ensemble in a witty and furtive version of Till Eulenspiegel as well as fiery and eloquent ones of the two Waltz Sequences from Der Rosenkavalier (all 1960). These are recordings from the Philips stable. On the second disc – emanating from DG – comes a particularly moving account of Metamorphosen (Strauss’s musical response to the bombing of Dresden during World War Two), an intimate and somewhat awe-struck performance from 23 string-players of Staatskapelle Dresden and Giuseppe Sinopoli (1994). These artists also give well-considered and insightful performances (all part of the Staatskapelle tradition really) of less obvious Strauss pieces – a beautifully played ‘Love Scene’ from Feuersnot and the Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten – as well as a voluptuous and modernistic approach to ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome, all recorded in 1995. Laced into this sequence is the lovely ‘Sextet’ that is the prelude to Capriccio, given with a few more strings than that by Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and Karl Münchinger (1971). [DG ELOQUENCE 480 0478, 2 hours 32 minutes]

Sinopoli returns for a twofer of his own – core Strauss (in opus number order): Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, Also sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben. These are certainly interesting performances, the product of an enquiring and imaginative mind on Sinopoli’s account; but they are also occasionally lumpy and sometimes overly-distended performances. No doubting the individuality, though, and once again featuring the wonderful qualities of Staatskapelle Dresden (1991) as well as the virtuosity of the New York Philharmonic (Zarathustra and Tod, 1987). [DG ELOQUENCE 480 0411, 2 hours 13 minutes]

The one single disc features orchestral songs, including the ‘farewell’ that is Four Last Songs. Throughout, Berliner Philharmoniker and Claudio Abbado supply classy and sensitive support to two distinguished singers. Christine Schäfer (1997) features in five settings; she is very focussed and doesn’t rush her fences when it comes to opening out; when she does, it means something. Her favourites include the sublime Das Rosenband and Morgen!. Karita Mattila (1998 and more naturally recorded than Schäfer) bags Strauss’s final songs as well as six others, including Cäcilie. This is a wonderful compilation! [DG ELOQUENCE 480 0414, 65 minutes]

Throughout, the sound offers few qualms (save a little too spacious in some of the Sinopoli selections) and analogue material has been very successfully re-mastered.

Advice: Buy at Buywell (an excellent international purchase and information service) – click on the link below!

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