Don Juan, Op.20
Aus Italien, Op.16
Don Quixote, Op.35
Sebastian Herberg (viola) & Jan Vogler (cello) [Don Quixote]
Recorded 8-10 September 2003 (Don Quixote) and 7-10 July 2008 in Lukaskirche, Dresden
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: March 2010
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
88697435542 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 43 minutes
At first Don Juan gave an initial impression of a slightly distanced orchestra with less than the ideal amount of impact in the lower frequencies. This seemed at odds with the convincingly furious approach of the conductor to the dramatic opening section, yet this feeling of ‘understated’ sound dispelled as the performance continued. By the time the bold horn theme has arrived some ten minutes later, the orchestral weight is ideal; moreover the engineers are entirely sympathetic to Fabio Luisi’s notable talent for bringing out every inner part within Strauss’s richly imaginative orchestration. Not only is the conductor sensitive to detail but he also has an extraordinary appreciation of shape and form. (I was much impressed by this characteristic Luisi’s unaffected recorded performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.) Structurally Don Juan has little in common with that work since Strauss provides a series of various episodes, usually differing considerably in tempo, but the impressive thing about Luisi’s interpretation is his ability to move smoothly from one episode to another, achieving a continuity lacking in many another account.
Aus Italien is slightly more ‘symphonic’, or at least it is in four movements, and as with so much of his music the descriptive titles are of no great importance. For example, the delicately dancing second movement makes a very suitable foil to the romantic opening ‘Auf der Campagna’ (perhaps an intentional parallel to the opening movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony). Therefore this following section does not really need the title ‘Amid Rome’s Ruins’ since the music conveys no such impression. For years I have listened to Strauss’s compositions only rarely bothering to more than glance at the titles of movements or sections since they are only occasionally graphically descriptive. In the same way I am more than content with the delightful flow and elegant impulse given to this joyful tribute to Italy and don’t particularly need the pictures. The finale with its folksy Italian tunes is a delightful summing up of all the composer’s whimsical impressions of the country and again it includes vivid orchestration. I don’t want to spoil it for those unfamiliar with this rarely-played work by identifying the incredibly well-known opening tune (that Strauss mistook as a folksong) but perhaps I may be permitted to mention the rising figure between 1’24” and 1’28” because of the unexpected reference to Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” Prelude (its relevance escapes me).
I must concede that with Don Quixote it is reasonable to look at the titles of the work’s thirteen sections because pictorialism is much more important here (this would have been easier had the attractively presented booklet not printed these titles in a very small font in dark gold on a black background). Despite the five-year difference between the recording of Don Quixote and its later companions, there is no great difference between the sonic qualities. The placement of the solo instruments only very slightly forward of the orchestra makes for an admirably realistic sound-picture. Again, accurate, well-detailed balancing is a feature of the performance and I like the way in which Luisi carefully holds back moderately powerful sections in order to save space for the orchestra to open-up excitingly at the more significant climaxes. From the absolutely clear and delicately fashioned detail of the battle with the sheep to the full-blooded, carefully-calculated, discordant jousting scene, Luisi’s sense of proportion remains immaculate.
A great deal of fascinating orchestration is evident throughout these works. Luisi’s thorough understanding of the composer’s style is the main factor in achieving this, but credit must also be given to the engineers for obtaining such realistic sound. Few other recordings display so well why it is that Strauss’s scoring is always praised highly.