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CD Review

Richard Strauss

Orchestral Works

  • Horn Concerto #1 in E Flat Major, Op. 11 4
  • Horn Concerto #2 in E Flat Major 4
  • Oboe Concerto in D Major 5
  • Duet Concertino 6
  • Burleske in D minor 7
  • Parergon zur Sinfonia domestica, Op. 73 8
  • Panathenaenzug, Op. 74 8
  • Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28
  • Don Juan, Op. 28
  • Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 1
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 8 2
  • Sinfonia domestica, Op. 53
  • Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
  • Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24
  • Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59 (Waltz Suite)
  • Salome, Op. 54 (Dance of the Seven Veils)
  • Capriccio, Op. 85 (Moonlight Music)
  • Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Suite)
  • Schlagobers, Op. 70 (Waltz)
  • Josephslegende, Op. 63 (Symphonic Fragment)
  • Metamorphosen
  • Alpine Symphony, Op. 64
  • Aus Italien, Op. 16
  • Macbeth, Op. 23
  • Don Quixote, Op. 35 3
  • Dance Suite from Pieces by Couperin
1 Peter Mirring, violin
2 Ulf Hoelscher, violin
3 Max Rostal, viola
3 Paul Tortelier, cello
4 Peter Damm, horn
5 Manfred Clement, oboe
6 Manfred Weise, clarinet
6 Wolfgang Liebscher, bassoon
7 Malcolm Frager, piano
8 Peter Rosel, piano
Staatskapelle Dresden/Rudolf Kempe
Warner Classics 50999431780-2 9CDs
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Okay, in terms of completeness, this is not the composers' complete orchestral music, and the Four Last Songs are also not here. These performances have been released countless times, but they are uniformly fabulous, so who cares? Rudolf Kempe, Fritz Reiner, and Herbert von Karajan all recorded Strauss extensively and very well. However, Kempe has the most "complete" set, and arguably the best orchestra and sound. Speaking of the sound, each disc jacket loudly shouts "Newly re-mastered from the original source tapes". These recordings have always sounded wonderful, whether on EMI, Brilliant Classics, or Warner. Eventually, they won't be able to sound "better", and I wouldn't reinvest if I already owned this set. And yes, it is the same set, unless you include the Moonlight Music, which is very pretty but hardly a reason to go out and buy a new set.

As for the performances themselves, the Staatskapelle Dresden sounds absolutely gorgeous throughout. Perhaps in the bigger tone poems, Karajan and Reiner are a bit more dramatic, but Reiner lacks the subtlety and polish on display here, and Karajan is far more self-indulgent than Kempe. I have no real interest in engaging in a debate on whether the Berlin Philharmonic or Staatskapelle Dresden is the better orchestra on technical grounds, but I will say the Dresden forces sound more naturally balanced internally than their colleagues in Berlin. Again, you could also wish for some of the vocal works, like the Four Last Songs. Karajan has those, in two reference editions, and Reiner left us multiple versions of various works with different ensembles. To be blunt, anyone who loves this music needs at least some of the recordings from all three men, and although Kempe is the least-known, he's also the most consistent.

Karajan struggled with Ein Heldenleben, while Reiner's Vienna Strauss is so inferior to his work in Chicago that it's frustrating he chose to defect to Decca from RCA in the first place. Karajan's Alpine Symphony wasn't a contender until its second or third re-mastering, and Reiner's Don Juan and Don Quixote are just okay (compared to his magnificent Ein Heldenleben, anyways). Kempe takes the field by being so consistently successful, so clear and polished in all these pieces, that even the second-rate stuff sounds like genius. The concertos (no one conductor has ever done so many and so well) are all terrific, and only in the horn concertos could you conceivably need alternatives. The concert works with piano are fiendishly hard and sound great here; the only way to get all of these pieces in such uniformly fine renditions in the (sort of) Blomstedt Decca box. There are dozens upon dozens of great Strauss discs, but so few great Strauss boxes. This is probably your best bet if you need one.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman