R. STRAUSS: Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegel; Death and Transfiguration; Vier letze Lieder – Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop./Vienna Philharmonic/ Wilhelm Furtwaengler/ Philharmonia Orch./ Otto Ackermann (Last Songs) – Praga Digitals

by | May 20, 2014 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

R. STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20; Till Eulenspiegel, Op. 28; Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24; Vier letze Lieder –  Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop./Vienna Philharmonic/ Wilhelm Furtwaengler/ Philharmonia Orch./ Otto Ackermann (Last Songs) – Praga Digitals mono-only SACD PRD/DSD 350100,78:45 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (4-7-14)****:

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Praga remasters classic renditions (rec. 1950-1954) of three of his major symphonic poems under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwaengler (1886-1954) and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, to which he fondly referred as his “mistress,” as opposed to his “wife,” the Berlin Philharmonic. The sonic detail now complements the lushly tragic nuances that Furtwaengler imbued into his readings of the canon of the German tradition. The 1948 Four Last Songs, however, which Furtwaengler did premiere with Kirsten Flagstad in a performance preserved on inferior shellacs, has been replaced with the first London studio recording (25 September 1953) led by Otto Ackermann and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who would later inscribe the cycle with George Szell.

The Furtwaengler 1888 Don Juan (2-3 March 1954) has tremendous resonance, but the approach proves less heroically flamboyant than epically introspective, featuring impassioned string, wind, and brass work. Willy Boskovsky has the violin concertante parts, sensitively rendered. The triangle, too, merits solo status. The music enjoys power and spacious gestures, but a pall exists over the whole, already aware of poet Lenau’s pre-conceived fate for his hero.  For a brighter sense of inflamed hubris, we might look to the Serge Koussevitzky or Bruno Walter performances.

The reading of Tod und Verklaerung (21-24 March 1950) originally lacked the broad acoustic of the later Strauss inscriptions, but here in hi-res it reverberates beautifully in the winds and harp. Furtwaengler emphasizes the “infirm” character of the dying protagonist, the convulsions, the fevered brow. The colors of the low winds and throbbing tympani underline the almost erotic anguish of the Allegro molto agitato. Unfortunately, we detect some shatter and lack of homogeneity in the explosive and contrapuntally intricate passages, although these convey fierce spiritual conviction. The natural transitions between episodes, however much physical and psychic upheaval manifests itself, remains Furtwaengler’s strong suit. The C Major release from mortal coils projects a rarified tension too often absent on more virtuosic incarnations of this ambitious work.

Furtwaengler’s interpretation of the Strauss 1895 Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks steals his portion of this generous recording. Recorded 3 March 1954, the extended Rondo “after an old picaresque legend” vividly illustrates Furtwaengler’s wry capacity to evoke wit and charm from a score, where too often he stands “guilty” of profundity! Enormous verve and wonderful, homogeneous clarity of ensemble – as well as the fecund warmth of the orchestral response – mark virtually every measure of this delightful romp’s depicting a village scamp and his eventually fatal misadventures. We could wish that Furtwaengler, like Ackermann in his Strauss recording, had the celestial talent of Dennis Brain – in September – for the French horn part.  Furtwaengler injects a real sense of character into the proceedings, alternately swaggering, flirtatious, gregarious, carefree, scheming, and insolent, until the panic of actual execution dispels Till’s ingenuous hauteur. The “once upon a time” affect, a musical trait that Dvorak mastered beyond all others, finds a convincing rival here in Strauss.

This London-based recording of the Four Last Songs benefits from the luminous, ardent voice of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006), who pairs most auspiciously with violin Manoug Parikian for the Hesse poem Beim Schlafengehen. Conductor Otto Ackerman (1909-1960) generates a palpable swan-song ethos in these poetry settings, conceived, like the composer’s Metamorphosen, as a farewell to a world-spirit, a vision of Paradise Lost.  Each of the four songs has its veiled ardor and inner luminosity, but the grand chord that opens Im Abendroth (after Eichendorff) never fails to beckon to eternity.

For the collector of classic readings of Richard Strauss repertory, this disc – along with the recent issue by Pristine Classical of the Furtwaengler collaboration of the Songs premiere with Flagstad (PASC 407) remains indispensable (or choose the 24-bit Ambient Stereo download). The hi-res option gives us a somewhat enhanced listen to these old mono recordings.

—Gary Lemco


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