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Strauss: Tone Poems Vol 2 / Roth, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg

Strauss / Roth
Release Date: 10/29/2013 
Label:  Hänssler Classic   Catalog #: 93304   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Richard Strauss
Performer:  Johannes LuthyFrank-Michael Guthmann
Conductor:  François-Xavier Roth
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 14 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

R. STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Streiche. Don Quixote 1. Macbeth François-Xavier Roth, cond; 1 Frank-Michael Guthmann (vc); 1 Johannes Lüthy (va); SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg HÄNSSLER 93304 (74:19)

I must have missed the first installment in this Strauss survey, for the album at hand is labeled “Tone Read more Poems 2.” Sure enough, “Tone Poems 1” was reviewed as recently as issue 37:2 by both Arthur Lintgen and Lynn René Bayley, neither of whom placed it on a marble pedestal in the pantheon of the Strauss discography. That first volume kicked off the series with Ein Heldenleben and Death and Transfiguration . I’m sorry I haven’t heard it, but no matter, because this latest volume contains my favorite Strauss tone poem, Don Quixote.

Despite what colleagues Arthur and Lynn had to say about the previous release, I really like this one, a lot. Conductor François-Xavier Roth and Hänssler’s full-dimensional recording do an outstanding job of peeling back and exposing Don Quixote ’s multi-layered textures, such that orchestral groups are clearly set apart from each other, and instrumental solos emerging from within those groups really stand out. The result is a marvelously rich and complex musical tapestry in which one perceives the individual threads interlacing with each other and coalescing to form the totality of the fabric. Details from all quarters, but especially from the winds and low bass, are heard with unusual clarity, divulging the way in which, by stitching little bits and pieces together, Strauss constructs this towering masterpiece.

The primary soloists, cellist Frank-Michael Guthmann and violist Johannes Lüthy, are outstanding, playing to each other and to the orchestra in a way that turns the score into a real conversational narrative. In fact, Roth’s approach to the piece is very much that of a storyteller, which is to say that he encourages his orchestra and soloists to play up the descriptive aspects of their parts. The braying of Sancho Panza’s donkey, the bleating of the sheep, the surreal windmill scene, and Strauss’s other extra-musical, representational effects are rendered with especially vivid, colorful characterizations.

Longtime Quixote favorites of mine have been George Szell with Pierre Fournier and the Cleveland Orchestra, Charles Munch with Gregor Piatigorsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein with Lorne Munroe and the New York Philharmonic, and Fritz Reiner with Antonio Janigro and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. More recently, I was happily taken with a 2002 recording by Zubin Mehta with Mischa Maisky and the Berlin Philharmonic, reviewed in 28:1. I won’t be disposing of any of these versions in favor of this new Hänssler CD, but it will definitely find space on the shelf between them.

Some music critic—I can’t remember who—once described Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel as a German Sorcerer’s Apprentice . I don’t quite hear it that way. In fact, Till’s gruesome and undeserved demise as he’s hoisted on the gallows to be hanged has always struck me as pointing the way to Stravinsky’s Petrushka . In any case, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice , despite its message of what can happen when mischievous children are left to their own devices, ends with a spanking, not a hanging. Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel carries a more serious, political message. Till was real, a mid-14th-century fellow who lived in the Schleswig-Holstein town of Mölln. According to contemporary accounts, his jokes and pranks were aimed at exposing the hypocrisies of a repressive clergy and the sheep-like mentality of those who unquestioningly accepted the Church’s authoritarian sway over society’s mores. The real Till, by the way, died in bed of natural causes, or so it’s said. Apparently, the hanging was Strauss’s postscript on what happens to those who raise Cain with the priestly pack.

If numbers of recordings are a reliable measure, Till Eulenspiegel is Strauss’s second most popular tone poem, narrowly being edged out for first place by Don Juan . There are so many versions of these two works that an effort to make meaningful comparisons becomes an exercise in futility, so I won’t even try. I’ll just say that Gustavo Dudamel’s very recent recording with the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon, which couples Till with Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra , so far, has to be one of the current decade’s most impressive sonic blockbusters.

Roth follows Strauss’s second most popular tone poem with the composer’s least popular one, ending the disc with Macbeth . Composed between 1886 and 1888, the piece is Strauss’s second attempt at a tone poem; his first, Aus Italien , was completed in 1886, just before he took up work on Macbeth . Reports are that the new work gave Strauss fits; he was unhappy with it and tinkered with it endlessly. Criticism of the piece has focused mainly on the illogic of its dramatic progression relative to the play it sets out to portray, which is probably valid, for a loosely constructed sonata form doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a narrative or programmatically-themed work. Musically, too, though Macbeth is a solid, well-crafted piece of writing, it’s still largely indebted to Liszt; Strauss has yet to develop his own unique sound and personal style.

Despite there being only about a dozen recordings of the piece, it has received a handful of excellent performances by a number of distinguished conductors, including Rudolf Kempe, who many consider to be the definitive Strauss conductor of the 20th century, and Strauss himself in a 1936 recording with the Berlin Reichssenders Orchestra. Checking my own collection, I was quite surprised to discover that the only recording I have of Macbeth , other than the one by Kempe with the Staatskapelle Dresden in a nine-disc Brilliant Classics set I reviewed 35:6, is Marek Janowski’s Pittsburgh recording on a PentaTone SACD.

Whatever you might think of Kempe’s major Strauss survey of the 1970s, the recorded sound simply doesn’t stand up to more recent versions and that is not an inconsequential consideration when it comes to Strauss’s music. I can only emphasize what I said earlier about the stunning clarity of this new Hänssler recording by François-Xavier Roth and his Southwest German Radio forces. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 by Richard Strauss
Conductor:  François-Xavier Roth
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1894-1895; Germany 
Venue:  Konzerthaus Freiburg 
Length: 14 Minutes 44 Secs. 
Don Quixote, Op. 35 by Richard Strauss
Performer:  Johannes Luthy (Viola), Frank-Michael Guthmann (Cello)
Conductor:  François-Xavier Roth
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1896-1897; Germany 
Length: 38 Minutes 10 Secs. 
Macbeth, Op. 23 by Richard Strauss
Conductor:  François-Xavier Roth
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888/1891; Germany 
Venue:  Konzerthaus Freiburg 
Length: 18 Minutes 37 Secs. 

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