R. STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20; Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings; 9 Songs for Soprano and Piano – Joan Rodgers, soprano/ Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/ Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor and piano – Avie AV2172, 63:24 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Recorded 17-18 October 2001 (Don Juan and Metamorphosen) and 10 August 2008 (songs), this all-Strauss disc features two youthful and gifted British artists in collaboration. Conductor Latham-Koenig certainly rouses his Strasbourg players to alternately silken and impassioned heights in the 1889 Don Juan symphonic poem. The woodwind dialogues receive considerable attention, as do the interchanges of strings, horn, and harp. The love-scene evolves tenderly, moving from E Major to B Major but then succumbing to that ubiquitous rush of sixteenth notes that serves as a kind leitmotif, possibly indicative of the restless, Faustian nature of Don Juan’s self-destructive desires. The various descents culminate in A Minor, the Don spent on life and expiring with sullen gratitude. Still, the last paroxysm reaches quite an astonishing height, the Strasbourg sound resonant and thrilling, as those of us reared on Walter and Koussevitzky know it can be.
The marriage of Strauss to soprano Pauline de Ahna produced any number of lieder, and soprano Rodgers has selected several notable examples of love songs from poets Gilm, Stieler, Sallet, Mackay, and Gruppe. “Die Zeitlose” serves as an analogy to Blake’s “A Poison Tree, with its “poison that shines within” the saffron crocus. “Allerseelen” conveys a subtle tinge of love and death, as does the otherwise ecstatic “Concealed,” Op. 10, No. 6. “Georgine” captures the ambiguity of love and possible rejection, the ambivalence of the dream and the torment. Rodgers’ voice has a particularly bright top, and her clarity of diction would make her ideal interpreter of Kurt Weill. The 1880 “Begugnung” carries all of the flirtatious enthusiasm of young love, of which Nature herself has born witness. “Rote Rosen” carries a mature and secret passion, especially in the intricate harmony of the keyboard. “Die erwachte Rose” extends the rose metaphor for newly awakened passion. Finally, “Morgen! from Op. 27 (1894) bristles with ardent anticipation of a thousand tomorrows, each bearing the lovers towards a blissful eternity.
Metamorphosen (1946) represents the last major instrumental work from Strauss, conceived as a lament for the passing of German culture–especially in the aftermath of the bombings of Dresden and Munich–as a result of Nazism. The “heroic” impulse manifests itself in the quotations from the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, whose figures had found their way as well into Ein Heldenleben. Quotes from Arabella and Tristan appear sporadically, but the general tempo of the piece is adagio with touches of agitato. Given the exemplary inscriptions by Karajan, Horenstein, Barbirolli, and Furtwaengler – and a radio broadcast performance by Stokowski – maestro Latham-Koenig faces stiff competition in the realm of this tragic muse. He manages a graceful dignity throughout he piece, but he misses the severity of anguish the Furtwangler ripped from its woeful pages, the testament of life so devoted to art that it missed the moral catastrophe of Germany until it collapsed around him. Remarkably clean-sounding this disc, refreshed in its sonics enough to warrant audiophiles to hear it.
— Gary Lemco