Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Don Juan inspired by Lenau’s poem of the same name during 1888 and 1889, having completed his first tone poem, Aus Italien, a couple of years before. That work’s first three parts were well received in Munich in 1887 – though the final section, quoting Funiculi Funcula divided the audience and its composer Luigi Denza later sued Strauss for quoting what he’d thought was a folk tune! And won his case.
Don Juan is a far more mature and demanding work, and its premiere with the Weimar Court Orchestra in late 1889 was a complete success. The orchestra fairly leaps into action, the opening bars needing the most careful of rehearsal even by the most accomplished of orchestras and conductors. What a test this is for virtuosity! Jansons and his fine orchestra play this wonderfully well, and the love music at the center has rarely sounded so tender.
Ein Alpensinfonie was the last of Strauss’ tone poems, and took him several years to write; he began in the balmy year of 1911 when all was right in the European world but did not complete it until 1915 when the war to end all wars was well underway. Inspired to write this piece after the death of Mahler, Strauss’ piece is described in Leo Samama’s excellent essay as an Alpine backdrop to Zarathustra’s travels.
Eight horns on the stage, twelve behind the scenes, wind and thunder machines and to underpin it all an important part for organ are balanced by some spare and delicate writing for string solos. Jansons takes the listener on as satisfying a journey as can be hoped for; his view of this work is a long one. There is no shilly-shallying along the way, pointing this or that detail out and disturbing the fine architecture of this piece.
While both works’ recordings derive from four performances each, the final effect on disc is completely coherent. The summit is reached with grandeur, the storm is not made a caricature of itself, and the deep brass at the end when sunset has grabbed hold of the day is intensely moving. What impressive conducting and what impressive playing! [If Strauss’ tone-painting alone isn’t palpable enough for you, try this 16:9 photographic treatment on DVD which I reviewed some time ago…Ed.]
To cap it all, RCO Live has given us an entirely natural high resolution recording, where the orchestral balances appear to be Jansons’ and not the engineer’s. I recommend this quite superb SACD with huge enthusiasm. Fantastic!
— Peter Joelson