R. STRAUSS: Also Sprach Z.; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks; Don Juan – Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG

by | Dec 23, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

R. STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28; Don Juan, Op. 20 – Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG B0018913-02, 69:40 [Distr. by Universal] (9/17/13) ****:

Gustavo Dudamel inscribed these essential tone-poems of Richard Strauss with the Berlin Philharmonic between January and April 2013 in the Great Hall of the Philharmonie. These works already enjoy a long, fruitful association with the orchestra, whether as led historically by the composer, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Karl Boehm, Sergiu Celibidache, and Herbert von Karajan.  Of these three symphonic works, the 1896 Also Sprach Zarathustra stands out, since no philosophical tract had yet given birth to a musical response. Strauss attempts to capture in music the excitement and imaginative wonder endemic to Nietzsche’s 1885 poetic and speculative musings on the nature of Man and Existence. A kind of mystical exaltation flows through the score, an homage to Nietzsche and his idea of the musical development of the human race, from its origins through his emergence as the Superman.

Dudamel certainly arouses a visceral excitement in his players, especially as the horns, violins, oboes, and organ bring us “The World Riddle” (in C Major) of the Dwellers of the Outer Reaches and its quotes from Credo in unum Deum. The voluptuousness of Von der Grossen Sehnsucht (“Of the Great Longing”) and its immediate successor, Von Den Freuden und Leidenschaften (“Of Joys and Passions”) rival the famed recording by Fritz Reiner from Chicago, perhaps in improved warmth of orchestral tone. The slow fugue Von der Wissenschaft (“Of Science and Learning”) projects a thick texture not so distant from the polyphonic writing we find in Bartok, who as a young man in 1904, found the score revelatory. With The Convalescent we move into an extended scherzo that culminates in Das Tanzlied (“The Dance-Song”), featuring violin Daniel Stabrawa. Elements of Viennese waltz fuse with bravura tutti effects, a musical equivalent of Nietzsche’s description of Zarathustra among the wood-nymphs, realized with grand sweep by Dudamel. A low-pitched bell announces  the advent of midnight, when the deepest of all human questions sounds out in the Nachtwanderlied (“Song of the Night Wanderer”), a fateful “Whither?” that remains unresolved between “The Ideal” in B Major and “The World Riddle” in C, played simultaneously.

Till Eulenspiegel serves as a refreshing interlude between the heroic proportions of Zarathustra and Don Juan. A rondo in picaresque episodes, Till Eulenspiegel (1895) has had its marvelous recorded performances from Clemens Krauss, Fritz Reiner, and Otto Klemperer. The Es war Einmal (“Once Upon a Time”) motif infiltrates the series of misadventures, emphasizing the mischievous and iconoclastic aspects of Till’s unruly nature. The BPO clarinets, trumpets and bassoons do more than ample justice to the roguish character who disguises himself as false priest, rejected suitor, pompous scholar, and finally something of a blasphemer who suffers the gallows in retribution.  Dudamel keeps a virtuosic light hand on the proceedings, right up to Till’s shriek when he’s hanged.

Dudamel led a performance of the 1888 Don Juan with the Philharmonia of London when he was twenty-two. For this ambitious symphonic poem fashioned in the Liszt model of sonata-form, Strauss employs a play by Nikolaus Lenau which treats the psychological aspects of Don Juan’s various seductions of women in his own search for an Ideal. Despite a large orchestra – that includes five flutes and four French horns, glockenspiel, and cymbals – Dudamel coaxes intimate, transparent sounds from his responsive BPO, lovingly shaping the low winds and harp mix. The evocations of the various women prove quite lush, perhaps over-ripe, but all in the cause of Dudamel’s passionate musical persona. As in the Till performance, violinist Guy Braunstein does the solo honors. It’s basic Richard Strauss territory, but handsomely packaged with the young and enthusiastic Dudamel’s serving as its chief selling point.

—Gary Lemco