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CD Review

Richard Strauss

Orchestral Works

  • Four Last Songs 1
  • Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, Op. 56 #6 1
  • Capriccio, Op. 85 (Intermezzo & Monologue of the Countess) 1
  • An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64 2
  • Concerto for Horn & Orchestra #2 in E FlatMajor 3
  • Concerto for Oboe & Small Orchestra in D Major 4
  • Salome, Op. 54 (Dance of the Seven Veils)
  • Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24
  • Don Juan, Op. 20
  • Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 5
  • Metamorphosen
  • Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
  • Don Quixote, Op. 35 5,6,7
  • Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche, Op. 28
1 Anna Tomowa-Sintow, soprano
2 David Bell, organ
3 Norbert Hauptmann, horn
4 Lothar Koch, oboe
5 Leon Spierer, violin
6 Wolfram Christ, viola
7 António Meneses, cello
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Deutsche Grammophon 4786433 5CDs
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Collectors will find the physical box that houses these CDs beyond unhelpful as far as which of Karajan's many Strauss recordings it contains. For the record, these are – with the exception of the concertos and the Dance of the Seven Veils – all digital readings and captured late in Karajan's career. Some of this box has been available in the "Karajan Gold" edition, but most of it has not. They have never been collected all in one place. Now that the conductor's analogue Strauss has been painstakingly collected (including the famous Decca recordings and this present Alpine Symphony in Deutsche Grammophon 4792686), this 2011 box is at risk of being forgotten. Don't let that happen.

For sheer orchestral opulence, there isn't a comparable conductor in this music. Rudolf Kempe comes very close, and his lean and astonishingly transparent recordings continue to set a standard even today. In my mind, he and Karajan are the two greatest Strauss conductors on disc, and thankfully both men left ample recordings to savor. Karajan, perhaps typically, recorded the core of his Strauss repertoire several times. Critics have been waxing lyrical since before I was born about the earlier analogue efforts, but over the years these digital takes have been restored carefully while also being offered at progressively lower prices. For what it's worth, all of Karajan's Strauss is worth hearing and owning (some of it on Warner Classics), but these final thoughts on the music are very special. Each of the major tone poems emerge with more realistic balances between sections, allowing more wind and brass detail. For example, while Anna Tomowa-Sintow's vocal contributions in the Four Last Songs are fine, the conductor's greater attention to his orchestra as a whole is likely to linger longer in the mind. And each one of the maestro's other distinguished soloists favorably compare to anything in the catalog.

The beginning of Zarathustra following the ubiquitous introduction is notably more incisive and less string-laden here. The rest is a clinic in how to make this music work. All of Karajan's recordings of the work (including one used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, from Vienna) are different enough to warrant your attention. They are all excellent. Don Juan, always taken more slowly than Kempe and Szell, is nevertheless tremendously potent. Never one for speed in Strauss – or anyone else, really – Karajan unfolds the music with such a clear sense of purpose that you wonder why anyone would try to blaze through it. And Death and Transfiguration is one of the Maestro's finest readings of anything, an absolutely hair-raising account that features none of the conductor's worst traits and every one of his best. Ditto for the Metamorphosen, which is as moving as any version before or since.

The Alpine Symphony sounded awful upon its first CD release (I owned it), and the "Karajan Gold" re-mastering here is a marked improvement. Musically speaking, it's still one of the better ones out there. Don Quixote also proves to be compelling despite the lack of star power from the soloists. Karajan's Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche blows Dudamel's recent horror show right out of the water, and features some unbelievable ensemble from the Berliners. Ein Heldenleben is pretty good (Reiner is better), and everything else not mentioned has already attained classic status. Even if you own some – or all – of the great conductor's earlier efforts, these final thoughts are a great addition to any collection.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman