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Strauss: Tone Poems Vol 1 / Roth, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg

Strauss / Swr Sinfonieorchester Baden-baden
Release Date: 05/28/2013 
Label:  Hänssler Classic   Catalog #: 93299   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Richard Strauss
Conductor:  François-Xavier Roth
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

R. STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben. 1 Tod und Verklärung François-Xavier Roth, cond; 1 Christian Osterlag (vn); SWR SO Baden-Baden und Freiburg HÄNSSLER 93.299 (68:44)

Here is a new disc by François-Xavier Roth, whose recording of the Mahler First impressed me so much in an earlier review. This time, however, he is staring down at some of the most famous interpreters of Read more Richard Strauss’s music, including Willem Mengelberg, Arturo Toscanini, Rudolf Kempe, and Strauss himself. A difficult assignment, to say the least: What can you say in these two works that hasn’t been said before, and said well? The very opening of Ein Heldenleben isn’t very promising: The basses and cellos sound heavy, even a bit leaden, and there doesn’t seem to be much forward momentum, but as things go along Roth wakes up the orchestra and it responds with some passionate and really lovely playing. The interplay of winds in “Des Helden Widersacher” is simply magnificent; there is sweep and passion when needed from the strings, and Osterlag’s violin solo is truly gorgeous. All of this bodes well and points to an intelligent and passionate conductor who has a firm grasp of the score. Moreover, the sonics are almost of a 3D quality, which is almost a necessity in the first work. Just listen to the depth of the low brass the orchestra achieves in “Des Helden Gefährtin,” for instance: Even Kempe, with his outstanding sense of orchestral color, couldn’t quite pull that off the same way. And in the later sections of the work, Roth achieves a sweep and a singing line that is really quite engaging.

Yet in the end, I felt I had to come down on the side of Mengelberg in Ein Heldenleben (the 1941 performance with the Concertgebouw, not the 1928 New York Philharmonic recording) for that extra bit of cohesion and sweep. I think that, perhaps, Roth became just a little too enchanted with detail here; the music pauses and there are lulls that really shouldn’t be there. Strauss, too, keeps things moving very well, but even he doesn’t achieve the unbelievably dynamic sweep of Mengelberg—and this despite the fact that the Concertgebouw of that period sounded a bit rough, particularly in the string section. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a first-class digital Heldenleben, Roth will more than fulfill your expectations.

Tod und Verklärung is both easier and harder to conduct: Easier because it is nearly half as long and not quite as complex, harder because in this earlier work Strauss sounds less consistently inspired. There are some rather empty and/or bombastic passages, which a good conductor must take pains to make sound less so. The best performance I’ve ever heard is Toscanini’s, but neither the early (1942) Philadelphia Orchestra recording nor his later NBC Symphony version. I prefer the 1946 La Scala Orchestra concert performance, particularly in the pressing by Immortal Performances. That one has exactly the right balance of lyricism and warmth on the one hand and passionate drama on the other, and the way Toscanini phrases the music sounds to me exactly right. Yet in the opening, Roth comes remarkably close to my ideal interpretation: he has the same “dead,” muted feeling as Toscanini-La Scala, with the flute and organ soaring above the orchestra, and when the timpani whack introduces the more agitated passage, he has more than enough power. This is truly an exemplary reading, so good that Roth completely convinces you of his vision and makes the music “speak.” And believe me, when you start approaching the quality of Toscanini at his best, you’re really achieving something.

A split review, then, in a way. The Heldenleben is very good but not great, while the Tod und Verklärung is simply a knockout. If you want or need a great digital recording of the latter work, then, this is the disc for you.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 by Richard Strauss
Conductor:  François-Xavier Roth
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1897-1898; Germany 
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 by Richard Strauss
Conductor:  François-Xavier Roth
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1888-1889; Germany 

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