R. STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20; Aus Italien, Op. 16; Don Quixote, Op.35 – Jan Vogler, Cello; Sebastian Herberg, Viola/ Staatskapelle Dresden/ Fabio Luisi – Sony Classical

by | Mar 21, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

R. STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20; Aus Italien, Op. 16; Don Quixote, Op. 35 – Jan Vogler, Cello; Sebastian Herberg, Viola/ Staatskapelle Dresden/ Fabio Luisi  (Recorded: July 7th-10th 2008 (Opp. 20 and 16), September 8th-10th 2003 (Op. 35) Lukaskirche Dresden, Germany) – Sony Classical multichannel SACD 88697435542, 61:53 + 38:36 ***** [Import]:

The art of a 460 year-old Orchestra together with Sony Classical’s sonic excellence brings a Strauss experience onto a new platform.

In the past 120 years of its music legacy, the Staatskapelle Dresden has garnered a revered reputation on international stage for the orchestral and operatic compositions of Richard Strauss. Throughout the life of the composer, the Staatskapelle Dresden maintained close ties with Strauss, where nine of the fifteen operas including “Salome,” “Elektra,” and “Der Rosenkavalier” received their first performances with the Orchestra. Principal conductors from the past, including Ernst von Schuch, Fritz Reiner, Karl Böhm, Rudolf Kempe, Giuseppe Sinopoli and those from the present including Herbert Blomstedt and Bernard Haitink have collectively helped to mold a hallmark for the Staatskapelle Dresden as Strauss’s “definitive orchestra.” Its current General Music Director, Fabio Luisi, extends this royal lineage with plans to record all the composer’s tone poems and major compositions for Sony Music, a project that was launched in the 2007. It began with an initial CD coupling Ein Heldenleben and Metamorphosen, followed by a second volume with Eine Alpensinfonie and Vier letzte Lieder. Here lies the third installment of what promises a successful series thus far. No wonder Fabio Luisi and the Staatskapelle Dresden schedules the Orchestra’s returning Hong Kong tour in May 2009 with a full day’s concert dedicated to the tonepoems of the German master – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and Also sprach Zarathustra, plus the Burleske for Piano and Orchestra with soloist Emanuel Ax. To experience “Richard Strauss in the original tongue,” this recording offers a probing glimpse into this everlasting voice.

Don Juan
was Strauss’ first work of musical genius. Its second performance was made with the Staatskapelle Dresden in January 1890, according to dramaturge of the Orchestra Tobias Niederschlag, who provided the liner notes. What is apparent from the first measures of Don Juan in this present recording is to impress on how Luisi plans definite ideas of where and how he envisions the music to develop. The complex rhythms of Strauss’ titular hero leading to the later famous horn cell are represented by opening gestures loaded with breathtaking energy and precision by the Dresdeners. Single notes charging with crescendi and the multifaceted articulations shape phrases distinctively in their positions to place them in startling relief. The dolce moments depicting the courageous persona of the title character evolve into what seems a contented sigh, aided and abetted by a beautiful solo from concertmaster Matthias Wollong. Equally impressive are the episodes of solo oboe by Bernd Schober. Most importantly, Luisi builds on a consistent momentum that ties the various episodes into a coherent piece of art. The sound that is manifested, thanks to Sony Music’s multichannel SACD technology and recording engineer Stephan Schellmann, contributes to this sense of completeness and unity.

Aus Italien
was Strauss’s first piece of programme music. “I [Strauss] never really believed that it was possible to be inspired by the beauties of nature,” writing to his mentor and the work’s dedicatee, Hans von Bülow, “but in the ruins of Rome I was taught otherwise, when ideas simply flew into my head.” The four-movement form resembles closely that of a classical symphony (Beethoven’s Pastorale comes close to mind). What Luisi and the Dresdeners give in their reading of Aus Italien can transport any listeners to the natural landscapes of Southern Italy without the hurdles of acquiring an air-ticket! The first movement “On the Campagna” is a radiant sunrise that closes into an euphoria, paving in part to the melancholy and grief entrenched by the string passages in the second movement “Amid Rome’s ruins.” The slow third movement “On the shore of Sorrento” recalls the influences of Wagner’s music on Strauss, as Luisi brings out the murmurs of the forest from Wagner’s Siegfried. Here, the musicians probe into this near-impressionistic portrait of Sorrento with their most connected and convinced personalities. The final movement “Neapolitan folk life” is in fact the only truly Italian-sounding movement, as Strauss uncovered what he referred as “a wild orchestral racket.” Strauss drew in part to the popular song “Funiculi, Funiculà” and Luisi allows himself and his musicians to fully engage into the spirit of the festivities.

Regarding Don Quixote, it is an interesting observation as noted by Niederschlag that Strauss was in fact planning another new work at exactly the same time in 1896. It was a tonepoem provisionally called “Held und Welt" (Hero and World) that was later renamed as Ein Heldenleben. Strauss regarded the two works as “direct counterparts” of one another: Don Quixote, being the “satyr play,” was an emotional relief from Ein Heldenleben. Strauss elected an unusual musical form for Don Quixote, its score being disguised in the form of concerto, and a double one. The noble Knight in Don Quixote is a virtuoso solo cello performed here by Jan Vogler, who is former principal cellist of the Orchestra from 1984 to 1997. The garrulous servant of the titular character is portrayed by a solo viola under present principal violist Sebastian Herberg. What is special in this interpretation comes from the balances favored in the strings – particularly in the work’s opening Theme and 1st Variation “The adventure at the windmills.” The impressive penetrating and resonant sounds of the celli and double basses speak with probing details, but never at the expense of the luster of the violins and violas, and together they opt into an almost chamber-music-like intimacy. With acoustics well-balanced by sound engineer Eberhard Hinz, even the trumpets and horns calls have a new brand of identity, as heard during the 2nd Variation “Battle with the Sheep” and the opening majestic statement of the galloping knight in the 10th Variation “Joust with the knight of the pale moon. Don Quixote journeys home.”  As a conductor, Luisi provokes plenty of character with each variation, and possibly from his close affinity with operatic repertoire, Luisi has a peculiar sensitivity lingering over final notes of phrases and twitching tempi to delineate dialogue exchanges from his players. Musical form is never obscure under Luisi’s hands. Joining with forces from Vogler and Herberg, the Staatskapelle Dresden gives us a dignified and ardent hero in Don Quixote.

— Patrick P.L. Lam


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