I must confess to some nostalgia while auditioning Donald Runnicles’ version of Wagner and Richard Strauss, since I covered the concerts of the Atlanta Symphony for over twenty years as a music critic for various journals. Recorded April 1-2, 2006 at the Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, the music in the surround medium totally absorbs your sound space and you with it. Cello, horn and harp resolution in the Tristan Prelude is spectacular, the Liebestod wickedly erotic, certainly a rival to what Nilsson and Knappertsbusch achieved fifty years ago. Jonathan Dlouhy’s oboe and Mark Yancich’s tympani are still miracles of sound. Brewer’s voice is huge, on a par with Jessye Norman and just as voluptuous at the top.
Oboe and harp (Elisabeth Remy Johnson) again conspire together to produce magic in Death and Transfiguration, soon aided by Cecylia Arzewski’s violin, Yancich’s tympani, and Brice Andrus’ French horn. The ASO brass and bass fiddle lines emerge with menacing vigor, as Ritter’s program describes the first throes of the death-struggle. Musically, it is the equivalent of that “sea of troubles” of which Hamlet laments. Definition in the brass, battery, and string sections scintillates with stylistic excitement. Beautiful flute part from Christina Smith. Runnicles‚ pacing, the long-breathed spaces of anguish between the death-throes, compels our attention. The eventual rise to eternity makes for a staggering audiophile experience.
Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs (1948), which for so long “belonged” to the late Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, finds a strong acolyte in Christine Brewster. Her Beim Schalfengehen, with arched solo violin obbligato from Cecylia Arzewski, may become a new classic. The impressive opening chord to the final song Im Abendrot, with its French horn, tympani, and lulling strings, always seduces my ear. As edited by Ernest Roth, these songs depict an abbreviated life journey, ending with quotations from Death and Transfiguration. The larks trill as sunset approaches, that tranquil peace which makes us think Death might be a friend. A marvelous, autumnal glow in surround sound, this fine disc is definitely for the Strauss lover who wants to hear every nuance.
— Gary Lemco