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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1897) [42:24]
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888) [18:22]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1895) [15:32]
Louisa Tuck (cello), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2017, Oslo Concert Hall, Norway

Vasily Petrenko continues his recordings of Richard Strauss tone poems with this programme containing for me his three best orchestral works. Petrenko has already proven himself a persuasive advocate of the composer and here really excels, given a lighter touch to the music than that of some of his illustrious predecessors. These performances do not lack in depth or warmth, and Petrenko manages to emphasize certain details that usually go unnoticed as well as bringing out the humour of Don Quixote and Till Eulenspiegel. The recordings are exemplary, too, with a natural concert-hall balance.

Don Quixote is undoubtedly Strauss’s most inventive work. Not only do the solo cello and viola portray the protagonist and his squire, respectively, but the use of brass flutter tonguing for the bleating of the sheep (Variation 2) and the wind machine depicting the ride through the air (Variation 7) are way ahead of their time. While the work is composed for a large orchestra, there is much transparency in the score with memorable passages for the woodwinds and brass.

Fritz Reiner’s account with the Chicago Symphony (RCA Red Seal) has been my benchmark on CD, while the contemporaneous reading by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell was my favourite on LP. Of newer recordings, I am particularly fond of David Zinman’s with the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich on the Arte Nova budget label that includes two less frequently heard works, the Cello Romance and the Wind Serenade. Petrenko’s new account need fear nothing in comparison with any of these, and with state-of-the-art sound this version will likely go to the top of available recordings for me. His approach from the Introduction is more lyrical than either the dynamic Reiner or Zinman. Petrenko’s cello and viola soloists are not guest stars, as has been the case with many earlier recordings, but primus inter pares members of the orchestra. Both Louisa Tuck and Catherine Bullock eloquently characterize their roles, especially the former who has the biggest part to play. Tuck’s cello in its warmth and virtuosity leaves nothing to be desired. Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic for their parts are also unimpeachable. Indeed, the orchestra’s playing is magnificent and the recording does it total justice. Petrenko, especially in the later variations, whips up a storm with the best of them. He’s not afraid to let loose and yet deeply impresses with the work’s more reflective music. I still have a special fondness for Reiner, though I have to admit that the 1959 sound is beginning to show its age. The RCA recording is balanced more closely and the higher strings take on a digital edge in the remastering.

There are, surprisingly, only a few discs that have Don Quixote coupled with the other two tone poems here. It seems like such a logical programme. Petrenko’s identification with Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel is as palpable as with the longer piece. For Don Juan again Reiner’s account, his second recording from 1960, has been my yardstick, though Georg Solti’s later one (Decca) is similar, if less volatile. Petrenko is not as powerful as those, but he takes great care with the subtler aspects of the score and yet does not really shortchange the dramatic passages. In some respects, he reminds me of Bruno Walter’s New York Philharmonic performance, which, along with Szell’s Cleveland account, was my go-to version on LP. Petrenko’s violin soloist, concertmaster Elise Båtnes, excels here as she also does in Don Quixote. The Oslo winds are every bit the equal to their Chicago counterparts, with particularly lovely oboe and clarinet solos and ravishing horns as they announce their big theme later in the work. All in all, Petrenko’s account makes this popular piece sound new minted.

Equally attractive is this Oslo Till Eulenspiegel. It combines the virtuosity of Solti’s Chicago Symphony performance with the character and humour of Rudolf Kempe’s Dresden Staatskapelle account on EMI/Warner. Whereas Solti’s Chicago recording is certainly spectacular, for example, those horns’ “wow!” factor, and one can feel a bit bludgeoned at times, Kempe’s subtler account has bags of character. Petrenko is lighter and more characterful than Solti, but with better sound than Kempe and arguably finer principals in the wind sections. The clarinet’s squeal before Till’s demise is gut-wrenching and the horn playing is outstanding. The warmth of the strings throughout is also notable. This is most certainly an account to live with and revisit again and again.

LAWO’s production is first-rate with the CD housed in a cardboard bi-fold album, rather than a plastic jewel case. It is encouraging that more manufacturers are relinquishing plastic for more recyclable material. The accompanying booklet contains satisfactory notes, but with Norwegian and English translations side by side making it somewhat more cumbersome to read—particularly as the English is printed in a pale red on the white background, while the Norwegian is a more readable black on white. Also, one has to hunt to find mention of the solo violist for Don Quixote, whereas the cellist is naturally more prominently displayed. Enough carping, though. I have no hesitation in considering this new production now the best way to collect these three Strauss works on a single disc.

Leslie Wright

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