> Richard Strauss: Kempe [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Salome, op.54 – Dance of the Seven Veils’ (1910)
Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) op.24 ((1989)
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) op.40 (1898)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Rudolf Kempe, Peter Mirring, violin
Recorded 13th-24th June 1970 (Dance of the Seven Veils and Tod und Verklärung), and 26th-30th March 1972 (Ein Heldenleben), Lukaskirche, Dresden
EMI CLASSICS Great Recordings of the Century 5 67891 2 [75:15]


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Rudolf Kempe was a supreme interpreter of the music of Richard Strauss. Having played the music (as an orchestral oboist) himself, he had an acute understanding of the brilliance of Strauss’s instrumentation. He also had a gift for flexibility of phrasing, without ever losing sight of the fundamental pulse of the music. This last is in contrast to Herbert von Karajan, who often displayed a maddeningly cavalier attitude to the precise value of sustained notes or rests.

In the Dresden Staatskapelle, Kempe had the perfect instrument for this music. They have the pedigree and the sense of style, and a sheer beauty of sound which is second to none among the world’s orchestras (or they certainly did in Kempe’s day). The strings have a glorious bloom with added brilliance, the brass are massively powerful yet superbly blended, and all the woodwind players are soloists in their own right. Add to that a recording which, even allowing for EMI’s brushing up, was years ahead of its time, and you have a really wonderful musical experience.

The Dance of the Seven Veils is a mere hors d’oeuvre to the sumptuous fare which follows. It’s worth hearing, though; Kempe brings out the visual qualities of the music, its sinuous, sensuous evocation of Salome – one of the first lap-dancers? Then it’s down to the serious business. Tod und Verklärung is an inspirational piece, especially coming from a young composer (just 24 when he began it), though it needs to be handled carefully if its rhetoric is not to spill over into bombast. No danger of that here; Kempe’s sensitive balancing of tempi and texture means that the music builds inexorably throughout. The opening catches the ‘sick-room’ atmosphere perfectly (looking forward to the Prelude to Gerontius), and the Allegro music which follows expresses the agony and physical weakness of the dying man, without going ‘over the top’. The final ‘Verklärung’ has a serene, glowing quality, leading ultimately to a final chord of C major which is one of the most beautiful things of its kind that I’ve ever heard.

Ein Heldenleben is, of course, a very different kettle of fish. It is a programme symphony based on the life of a ‘Hero’, who is in fact none other than Richard Strauss himself. I’ve always found it hard to believe that a composer with as highly developed a sense of humour as Strauss could compose a piece so shamelessly self-laudatory as this without his tongue firmly in his cheek. And there is a great deal of humour in the work, from the obstreperous dissonances of the Critics to the garrulous violin cadenzas depicting the composer’s wife, Pauline.

Kempe and his Dresden players capture perfectly the ‘larger-than-life’ sides of the music. When the music calls for it, they give it the full treatment, notably in the blood and thunder of the battle scene, the earlier love music, or the crepuscular duetting of horn and violin that brings the work to its tranquil end. The playing is sensational; One moment in particular made me laugh out loud. After the battle sequence, the music approaches a clinching cadence in Eb major. Most of the orchestra rises up a scale of Eb, while the eight horns in unison move downwards. As the final top note is approached, the horns can’t wait any longer and make a huge concerted leap for the top Eb, seizing it triumphantly just before everybody else. (One of the reasons I laughed was because it reminded me of a brilliantly funny lecture by Stephen Banfield on ‘The Horn as Phallic Symbol in the Music of R.Strauss’. Surely a case in this instance of ‘ejaculatio praecox’?)

I should mention, finally, the contribution of the leader, Peter Mirring, who plays the immensely demanding violin solos with exquisite beauty. All in all, a heady experience for Strauss lovers, or anyone who loves great orchestral playing. No collection should be without it.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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