Eugene Ormandy/Emanuel Feuermann, cello. Samuel Lifchey, viola. Philadelphia Orchestra (1940)
We can cite the two main virtues of this recording quickly: Feuermann and Lifchey, who spark off one another like fine actors. "Dialogues between knight and squire" for once really is a dialogue, rather than two separate instrumentalists, each with his own musical meat. Rock-solid in technique and full-toned, Feuermann makes an aristocratic Quixote, yet, in the finale, a human one as well. Lifchey isn't quite up to the technical demands of his part, but he understands its dramatic character like few others.
The weakness is Ormandy's. The conductor always had trouble with highly contrapuntal music, due, I believe, to an unclear beat. To his credit, he never lost the main pulse of a work, but the subsidiary lines tended to sink beneath a general musical haze. The introduction, "Vigil," and finale are quite fine. The windmills, ride through the air, enchanted boat, and Quixote's defeat, are mostly too muddy to score much of an impact. The recorded sound doesn't help. Soloists and orchestra are not easily distinguished. I suspect that most of the interest in this disk will be sparked by Feuermann.
George Szell/Pierre Fournier, cello; Abraham Skernick, viola; Rafael Druian, violin. Cleveland Orchestra (released in Britain, 1969)
Although conceived as a tone poem, with the soloists coming from the first desks of the orchestra, the fiendish difficulty of the cello part has attracted nearly all the dominant cellists of their eras and has transformed the piece into a celebrity event. Despite the prominence of the cello and the viola and the size of the orchestra (including wind machine), most of the music is pared down to small groups (as an extreme example, the duet for two bassoons, almost soli, in Variation IX) and pushes forward chamber-music interactions among the first desks. A conductor who sees this as soloist vs. orchestra fundamentally misconceives the nature of the work. Beyond this basic level, for me, how the conductor handles the introduction, variations III ("Dialogues between knight and squire"), V ("Vigil"), and finale separates the great from the good.
Szell's is the classic account. One of the great Strauss conductors leads his orchestra in the finest performance of Strauss' most profound instrumental work. This performance has been extremely hard to get hold of in the United States. It first appeared on the old Epic label, sometime around 1960. CBS then released it in Britain. It briefly resurfaced in this country on CD, and then left, probably for Japan and Europe. This is the peak of Strauss playing. If you see it, consider that you will not get a chance to see it again.
Even the opening phrase is magic in its delicate fancy. Details that normally don't count for much in performance, like the opening extended solo for oboe, come alive under Szell. Although the recorded sound quality does not exceed Columbia's usual Acceptable, Szell separates the complex contrapuntal strands and allows the listener to hear all of them. The famous crowd-pleasers (the sheep, the boat, the pilgrims, and the flying horse) are played smashingly well, and Szell manages to realize farcical genius in these sections. The "Dialogues between knight and squire" not only impress you as drama but rise to noble heights as Quixote apostrophizes the chivalric ideal. "Vigil" rekindles that mood, with a truly rapturous moment at the harp glissando. Throughout this, Fournier captures Don Quixote's nobility and foolishness with the depth of a great comic actor. Skernick, a fine violist, nevertheless comes along for the ride. He retreats too much. Even Sancho has good lines. Admittedly, Strauss wrote an interpretively tricky part: the deliberate cliches (characterizing Sancho's flow of proverbs) need someone willing to rub our noses in them. Few violists play this way.
From Variation X through the finale, Szell manages continually to build from a great performance to something even more. The funeral-like march after Quixote's defeat injects a tragic note. This is not merely the death of an ideal, but almost of idealism. In Quixote's death scene, Szell's interpretation realizes Cervantes's description: "The notary who was present remarked that in none of those books had he read of any knight-errant dying in his own bed so peacefully and in so Christian a manner." When the opening phrase of the work returns, it comes like a glimpse of heaven. Sony SMK47625. Leonard Bernstein/Lorne Munroe, cello. William Lincer, viola. New York Philharmonic (1965)
Bernstein brings off the purely descriptive pieces, but has trouble with the meditative side of the work. Lorne Monroe plays less vividly and elegantly than Tortelier, let alone Fournier. Lincer does better than Skernick at character portrayal, but not much. This good reading, however, takes off from Variation X, almost to the very end. Bernstein powerfully hammers at the long march, keeping up the intensity until the Don regains his reason at the recurrence of the introductory discord. The finale is genuinely affecting – Bernstein takes it like a Mahler adagio – but falls short of the nobility Szell achieves.
Rudolf Kempe/Paul Tortelier, cello. Max Rostal, viola. Dresden State Orchestra (1973)
More than any other recording, this interpretation realizes the chamber conception of the piece – yet another great performance in a catalogue set. Soloists are way to the front and the orchestra so distant, at times they seem to play in another room. Still, this works to the composition's advantage, and Kempe certainly doesn't skimp at the climaxes. My two gripes are nigglers: his sheep sound more like geese; his "Vigil," while good, fails to reach the ecstatic heights of Szell. Other than that, I have nothing but praise for interpretation and playing this refined.
A major weakness, Tortelier's Don lacks the subtlety of Fournier's.
However, Max Rostal is a wonderful interpreter of Sancho. That he steals every scene he's in (especially during the "Dialogues") unfortunately points up the interest Tortelier fails to generate. Our attachment to Quixote here relies on Kempe and the orchestra. For this reason, the Don's death, where the solo cello sings in an extended passage as beautiful as any Strauss wrote, speaks less to the listener than in either Szell or in Bernstein.
Seji Ozawa/Yo-Yo Ma, cello. Burton Fine, viola. Boston Symphony Orchestra (1984)
"Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," a waste of time. Ozawa seems to have forgotten all tempi faster than "draggy." No magic, no wit. The orchestral sounds as dull as cotton wool; a general haze seems to have settled in Symphony Hall. Ma and Fine contribute nothing but their notes.
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