Willem Mengelberg/Concertgebouw Orchestra (1938)
With Strauss' favorite orchestra led by their greatest conductor (a friend of the composer, incidentally), this recording has tremendous historical importance. It also happens to be a hell of a reading, from which we can surmise a few things about Strauss' view of the way his music should go. Strauss wrote to the conductor about the importance of sharp attack and sharp articulation. He particularly admonished Mengelberg not to let the violins fall into the "sweet and feeble. I prefer a more vigorous, rougher playing. Could you pay some attention to this point?"
From the opening salvo, Mengelberg shoots the piece through with a nervous rhythmic excitement. The timpani crack out their opening triplets sharp as lightning, and the pulsing triplets in the accompanying brass and winds beat out distinctly. Even the two extended love episodes don't wallow or linger, yet sing with full warmth. Furthermore, despite the advantage of stereo and superior imaging, many modern interpretations don't approach Mengelberg's clarity; listen to the "masked ball" music in particular. Masterful phrasing and subtle shifts in tempi are of course Mengelberg's "thing." Mengelberg's Concertgebouw can stretch and pull back a tempo without the ensemble falling apart. This occurs at its most noticeable in the passage leading up to the noble oboe melody that sets off the last love episode and in the episode itself. Very few conductors today who attempt this elasticity of line make as much musical sense. Finally, Mengelberg may be one of the few interpreters familiar with the Lenau drama which inspired Strauss. In the coda, he recognizes the initial dissonance of the trumpet as the sword thrust and gives the note a surprising zetz. The shudders in the descending strings become the hero's death agony. Mengelberg edges dangerously near grand guignol without falling into it and achieves one of the most hair-raising Don Juans ever.
Digital technology has cleaned up the surface quite a bit, but, if you need audiophile Strauss, choose a more modern recording.
George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra (released 1985)
Szell and the Cleveland's surpasses every other reading I know – one of the very greatest Strauss discs, in my opinion. The almost too-familiar opening alone will raise you six inches off your chair. This Don Juan has plenty of muscle and swagger. If the first extended love episode blossoms fully, the second rises to the height of the philosophic idealism of the Don himself. Nobody else realizes this passage to Szell's extent. The accompaniment to the glorious oboe melody, which can plod in less capable hands, moves just enough to suspend time. The masked ball sparkles. Szell takes the fiendish string runs at speeds faster than you would think possible without letting them degenerate into mere slides. The trumpet, as it should, stabs in the coda, as does the horn a bit further on. The effect, however, is not so macabre as in Mengelberg's reading. Instead, the Don dies as elegantly as he lived. The transfer to CD sounds better than the boxy LP original and, while short of the breathtaking miracles of London in the Dohnanyi performance (see below), is thoroughly acceptable. Furthermore, right now it sells on the budget line. At full price, you can't do this well.
Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1960)
I love the Strauss recordings of Fritz Reiner, but not this one, with its harsh sound and surprisingly careless playing. The love episodes plod. The Don himself seems mostly pedestrian, until the glorious octave leap from the four horns. Of course, Strauss designed this moment to grab you, and the Chicago horns simply do not let you go.
In the final development, Reiner finally wakes up, with the piece two-thirds over, and delivers a smashing rendition of the opening striding theme to the Don's heroic octave leap (the theme toward which the two love themes have been leading). The coda sinks back to the ordinary and the perfunctory. Even Reiner nods.
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic (1963)
This good performance disappoints. I always think Bernstein should conduct Strauss better than he proves to. Both he and Strauss are essentially theater composers, no matter what the form, and Bernstein has repeatedly revealed his sympathy with late Romanticism. The sheer physical energy in Strauss and in this piece in particular should have exercised the finest in Bernstein's talent. The opening has sufficient energy, but pales alongside Szell. Although the first love episode is too static, the second love episode is the finest moment in the reading.
Here, Bernstein takes a huge chance with an extremely slow tempo and brings it off. Actually, I believe most of the problems lie with the orchestra. Their tone is thin and the ensemble thickens much of the time. Thank God for the glockenspiel. Everyone rises to the occasion, however, in the last recapitulation. In the coda, the trumpet and horn sound, but the string shudders fail to bring up the corresponding frisson in me.
The CD transfer hisses a bit, but the sound overall is acceptable.
Rudolf Kempe/Dresden State Orchestra (1970)
Less visceral than some Don Juans, this recording features sumptuous sound from the Dresdeners and gorgeous ensemble work and textures from Kempe, who emphasizes the ties to Wagner. In fact, the opening may remind you a bit of the Lohengrin prelude to Act III. The first love episode rises to almost unendurable, Tristan passion. The second love episode sounds a wonderfully tranquil note before the four horns sound out their octave theme. Nevertheless, Kempe doesn't let them blare. He pulls back almost immediately into the "masked ball" music and builds a fine developmental paragraph that lasts to the "despair" episode. In the coda, Kempe emphasizes the shivers of the strings rather than the brass dissonance, but he gets the proper effect.
In all, I would choose this after the Szell. The opening doesn't galvanize you like some, but Kempe clearly has the measure of the piece.
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony (1988)
An aristocratic, elegant Don Juan, but do you really want him? After years of jump-starting our adrenalin at the opening rush and bound, are we ready for an interpretation that removes all the vulgarity from the work? Almost every quality that he put into his classic Alpensinfonie, Blomstedt has here, but one: the physical excitement. He wants to raise and ennoble the piece as a great symphonic movement by leaving out the crude sexual drive. I think it a miscalculation. The four horns thrill at their entrance yet again, but on the whole, the performance makes you think of Paul Henried, rather than Errol Flynn.
Christoph von Dohnányi/Vienna Philharmonic (1989)
The best recorded sound of all – gorgeous, in fact; richer than any orchestra on planet earth. If it's possible to take Strauss over the top, Dohnanyi does it. The intensity the conductor brings to almost everything he does somehow kicks into an even higher gear. This is a DeMille reading, striving for significance, and corny and uninvolving at the same time. The second love episode, which elicits from Strauss his most sublime music, lacks a pulse. The four-horn entrance is impressive indeed, in a Margaret Dumont way, but it doesn't floor a listener, as some far less well-played do. Dohnanyi milks the "despair" episode (by the way, this is one of the longest Don Juans on record) for no good reason and far past the point that the music can sustain. Dohnanyi is a favorite of mine, but here he misses big.
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