George Szell/Cleveland Orchestra (released 1985)
Till Eulenspiegel typifies the dual nature of Strauss' best tone poems. On the one hand, you can view large chunks of it simply as a musical structure, shed of all programmatic content (for example, the beginning through the "priest disguise" section). On the other, sections like the trial and hanging seem merely arbitrary without the program. Neither alternative satisfies, which is why a perfect performance – as opposed to the many effective ones – comes by so rarely.
Szell delivers a classic account, the result mainly of close attention to Strauss' markings. He scrupulously observes Strauss' staccatos and legatos, for instance, and from just this reaps an amazing yield of color and characterization. Szell brings all his considerable virtues to the score: wonderful unanimity of attack, electrifying rhythm, clear orchestral textures, and a genius for revealing the overall structure. Szell's preparation of the score and meditation on the overall shape gives each passage its proper weight and rejects the momentary effect. This is an Eulenspiegel of magnificent unity until Strauss' abrupt cut and shift to the trial and gallows sequence. Szell's reading, one of the few, emphasizes the glories of Strauss' counterpoint, arguably the composer's most effective, where no line feels de trop. Those passages where both Eulenspiegel themes sound simultaneously at various speeds and mensural displacements and where parts of the orchestra toss motives to others in long climactic builds thrill you, thanks to the acuity of ensemble and attack.
Even better, the performance appears on a budget CD with decent sound. You need not mentally adjust to "historic" static, pops, and hiss.
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic (1959)
Bernstein aims his reading dead on the grotesque. He hits isolated notes, particularly in the trombones (a trick throughout the work), so that Eulenspiegel grimaces and capers like a gremlin – "ein arger Kobold" indeed. It's a theatrical, bold account, but it needs a great orchestra. The New York Philharmonic fails to meet Bernstein's demands. The introduction typifies the rest: an acrid sound, appallingly bad intonation, inattention to Strauss' marks, and slack rhythm. The players always seem a couple of steps behind Bernstein. The passages of complex counterpoint, particularly the free-for-all before the trial scene, come out as pulseless hash; the players seem out of breath. The Sony digital remastering enhances the presence of the orchestra, but it's a bit bright, with a noticeable hiss. All in all, this performance adds up to a lost opportunity. It should have been better.
Rudolf Kempe/Dresden State Orchestra (1970)
A reading in the Szell class. It's hard to choose between Kempe and Szell. Kempe moves more lightly, but you miss the weight of the big climaxes. Kempe's textures are even clearer than Szell's, most apparent in the 6/8 section before the gallows sequence. Not only does Kempe bring out the basic conflict between both Eulenspiegel themes (the first usually given to the clarinet, the second a parody of Siegfried's horn call), but he throws in contrapuntal lines in quick diminution as well, which I, for one, have never heard as clearly in any other performance. Kempe and the Dresdeners raise the bar on orchestral technique. However, this is a "musical" rather than a "character" Eulenspiegel. Some may find it a bit dry. For me, it's dry but effervescent, like really good champagne and just as intoxicating.
Christoph von Dohnányi/Cleveland Orchestra (1991)
The Cleveland Orchestra's second recorded outing, this time with Dohnanyi, proves even more successful than their splendid first. Again, the introduction typifies the whole. The languid first phrase is subtly shaped. The horn call pulses with nervous excitement. The harmonies are thrillingly in tune, the textural strands distinct and balanced with refinement. Till rides through the market with a crash, although the jabbing seconds in the winds (where he seems to peek out of his hiding place after the commotion) are too reticent. Nevertheless, the subsequent section where our hero woos the pretty girls proceeds with a courtly swagger. Dohnanyi is one of the few who manage to take this section liebegluhend, as Strauss notes in the score, and who emphasizes the courting theme's link to Till's opening horn call. Furthermore, the conductor builds the subsequent rejection to a magnificent climax, abetted by again the wonderfully in-tune chords and rich tone of the brass.
Dohnanyi particularly shines in managing the transitions from one orchestral texture to another. The "grosse Grimasse" after the episode of the scholars, for example, transforms itself into an insouciant little polka, as Till walks into the sunset. Dohnanyi brings it off not as an abrupt change or even by a discreet pause (the usual solutions), but as a metaphorphosis of one to the other, emphasizing the colors that link the two. To bring this off, of course, one needs to project distinctly the instrumental components of each color. This kind of shift happens throughout the performance. The jaunty contrapuntal fireworks before the interruption of the trial sequence – my favorite part of the work – percolates under Dohnanyi. The strands don't come forth quite as clearly as with Kempe, but Kempe's clarity is almost freakish (and entirely appropriate in this work), Still, the difference in degree between Kempe and Dohnanyi in this regard is a hair's breadth.
London gives the performance a wonderfully clear and yet realistic sound. The orchestra still bears a resemblance to its live self rather than some impossibly rich sonic confection manufactured by the turn of a dial.
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