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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898) [43:50]
Macbeth, Op. 23 (1888/1891) [20:25]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28 (1895) [15:04]
Symphonia Domestica, Op.53 (1904) [45:00]
Don Juan, Op.20 (1888) [18:25]
Symphony in F minor, Op.12 (1883) [43:33]
Eine Alpensinfonie Op.64 (1915) [50:33]
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1888/89) [26.30]
Aus Italien (Sinfonie Fantasie in G-Dur), Op. 16 [42:23]
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op.30 [34:35]
Don Quixote, Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters, Op.35 [43:16]
Isang Enders (cello), Thomas Rössel (viola)
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, 2011-18, Alte Oper Frankfurt
OEHMS CLASSICS OC033 [6 CDs: 378:06]

"Recycling individual releases into bargain boxes has proved to be a popular and lucrative way for record companies to exploit their back catalogue. Richard Strauss' orchestral music is especially suited to this given its enduring popularity and the fact that all the major works can be fitted neatly into a collection of just some six to nine discs depending on how wide ranging it is. Add to that the fact that orchestras and conductors seem to see Strauss, alongside the likes of Mahler, Beethoven and even Shostakovich as a kind of test of their musical virility. Certainly the 'big eight' Strauss tone poems along with the two pictorial symphonies remain some of the severest tests for orchestras in the repertoire and one by which international standards can be measured.

This six-disc set from Oehms brings together live recordings made at the Alte Oper by the Frankfurter Opern-und Museumorchester conducted by Sebastian Weigle between 2011 (Ein Heldenleben) and 2018 (Don Quixote). The liner booklet gives 2001 as the recording date for Heldenleben but the individual release lists it a decade later - so I assume a simple typo here. Whatever the truth of that, the consistency of the set is ensured not only artistically but technically with the same recording producers in place for the entire series. For this box set, Oehms have simply collected together the individual releases into a slimline cardboard box with no recoupling, with the same image on each of the inner cardboard slip cases. The booklet, in German and English only, has a fairly brief essay about the contents of each disc alongside a biography of Sebastian Weigle and a history of the orchestra. Both conductor and orchestra are well-suited to, and steeped in, this repertoire. Weigle was principal horn of the Berlin Staatskapelle from 1982 - what horn player does not love Strauss - and the orchestra were responsible for several Strauss premieres; Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896 and Ein Heldenleben in 1899, amongst others. Of course, much the same can be said of other ensembles and conductors and indeed the catalogue is awash with similar collections of both new and classic vintage. Oehms are marketing this set at around the £25.00 in the UK which represents very good value indeed given that individual discs are still available in the £10-12 price range. However, competition is very fierce with classic surveys covering much the same repertoire available from Kempe in Dresden on Warner, Reiner in Chicago on Sony/RCA and Karajan in Berlin on DG, to name just three of the most famous older sets of varying degrees of completeness.

The first CD opens with Ein Heldenleben. As mentioned, this recording is the earliest in the set. Technically this is very fine both in terms of performance and the engineering/production and it sets high standards for the set. The Frankfurter Opern-und Museumorchester play with a rich burnished sound that suits this music very well. Likewise, the engineering balances warmth and detail well. There are quite a few sound artefacts from audience and podium that underline the 'live' nature of the source recording. Slightly curiously, Oehms choose to retain applause after Macbeth but there is none after Heldenleben. Interpretively, Heldenleben is solidly good but not exceptional. The issue seems to be a lack of sharp characterisation. This work is such a bravura conception, egotistic, virtuosic and full of big musical gestures. The best performances map these without falling into bombast or sentiment. To avoid those latter pitfalls Weigle conducts a slightly circumspect performance which is relatively low on risk or indeed character. In its place is extremely fine playing which results in more admiration than excitement. Crowning the high quality of the execution of the music is the playing of the solo violin part which represents the "hero's helpmate". Sadly, the leader of the Frankfurter Opern-und Museumorchester is uncredited here and that is a great shame because this is beautifully refined and subtly nuanced playing. Quite often one hears this part played in a way that emphasises the - considerable - virtuosic demands of the part. Here, although the technique is never in doubt, the focus is on the personality portrayed - at once fickle, coquettish, playful and passionate. Ultimately this performance sounds as if Weigle had not yet stamped his own personality on the reading so, while individual moments are impressive and the work as a whole is always enjoyable, the overall result is too safe to be completely compelling.

This impression is thrown into sharper relief when you move to the 2013 performance of Macbeth. As the liner points out, the Op.23 assigned to the work is misleading as it predates Don Juan and represents a considerable musical and formal advance on the bucolic Aus Italien. For many established Strauss conductors it remained outside the accepted canon of orchestral works. So as far as I know, Krauss, Bohm, Karajan, Reiner never recorded the work commercially and while it was recorded by Hans Rosbaud in 1959, it was not until it was included in the Kempe survey in 1974 that the work received wider attention. The opus number actually reflects Strauss' various revisions of the work as he struggled to balance the narrative content and the formal demands of the music. Hence Macbeth remains a work in progress, but even so, it is the equal of or superior to most similar contemporaneous works. On this disc Weigle and his Frankfurt players give a really compelling performance - taut and dramatic while retaining the sheer quality of playing evident in Heldenleben. I last reviewed Macbeth in June 2018. There, Kirill Karabits and the Weimar Staatskapelle gave another excellent performance with a similar dynamic approach. The liners for both discs reference contemporaneous quotes that the music was Strauss' "severest and most austere" and the music as needing to be "harsh and gruesome" as the subject was "of a very wild nature". Certainly, it is interesting to hear Strauss write with less of the sophistication that would become a later trademark. Possibly, I would give the nod to Karabits for the most convincing performance of this score that I know, but that was a single disc of Strauss, so as part of a series/cycle this Weigle traversal leads the field for those seeking a modern recording.

The second disc opens with a performance of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche that dates from the same 2013 concerts as the preceding Macbeth. Again, the sheer quality of the recording and the orchestral playing is not in doubt in this the shortest of the tone poems. Weigle again seems to prefer an interpretation that is strong on fluency and coherence without being the most interventionist or individual. In direct comparison to say Manfred Honeck live in Pittsburgh on Reference Recordings, Weigle can seem verging on the bland. As much as this music could ever be so described - conversely, some may feel that Honeck imposes himself on the music too much. Take the very opening athletic horn theme depicting the eponymous hero. Weigle's Frankfurt player is predictably clean and precise but quite straight. In Pittsburgh - Honeck's principal (William Caballero I presume) gives a much more individual interpretation - and just listen to the sharp accented interjections from the Pittsburgh horn section in the passage that follows in comparison to the far less audible Frankfurt players. For some I can imagine the 'simpler' approach will be preferable and it can be argued that the original performing tradition of Strauss - as demonstrated by the composer himself when conducting - preferred the fluent, less attention-seeking style. Perhaps it is only in the years of the LP and the super-orchestra than conductors sought to stress the virtuosity and brilliance of their ensembles. These days where virtuosity at that level is now more of a norm than an exception there is, perhaps, deemed less of a need to overtly display it. All that said, I do again rather miss a wider emotional range than Weigle seems to want to deploy. Strauss in these tone poems is very explicitly displaying his own extraordinary ability to write for a large Romantic Symphony Orchestra in a way that was - for its time - quite unique. To underplay this aspect, to smooth out the emotional landscape from exalted mountain peaks to gloomy deep ravines seems wrong. Late in his career, perhaps, Strauss was more inclined to precise controlled gestures - in these tone poems it is surely the opposite.

Weigle's 'middle path' for his Till is demonstrated by the overall timing. At 15:04 he is a good minute slower than Zinman in Zurich or Szell in Cleveland and a minute quicker than Fruhbeck de Burgos in Dresden or Maazel with the Bavarian RSO. Indeed, his timing is almost identical to Jarvi in Scotland, Karajan in Vienna and - perhaps more surprisingly - Solti in his famous Decca/Chicago recording. Honeck comes in at 14:35. Overall, this is another performance where in isolation I enjoyed it greatly for its sheer quality of execution technically and musically - but as soon as interpretative comparisons are made I do miss a more individual story-teller than Weigle, who moderates the essential capriciousness of the eponymous hero.

The coupling is the Symphonia Domestica which is often cited as the least well-regarded of the tone poems. This dislike seems to be as much to do with the very concept of the work as much as any musical or formal flaws. Across a three-quarter hour time span Strauss deploys one of the largest orchestras he ever used to describe in considerable detail a day in the life of the Strauss household from the banal to the intimate. As such, it seems an act of improbable egotism in its literal depiction of events and, as such, lacks the defence that can be used of Heldenleben that some irony and humour lay behind the creation of the putative hero. Others find the musical material itself to be of a lower order than elsewhere. Hard not to think that Strauss could have saved himself a lot of criticism by simply avoiding any public declaration of the programme at all! Even some of the musical structure has been criticised; the double fugue on three themes which represent the Strauss family itself might well be a remarkable display of compositional technique but again hard not to view this a simple display of musical arrogance rather than being driven by a higher artistic demand. With all that said, I must admit I enjoy Domestica more than many. In the hands of the finest orchestras it is a celebration of what can be achieved with large orchestral forces. Strauss never sought profundity in this work - he wrote it this way simply because he could and the finest performances are those that similarly celebrate the brilliance and virtuosity of the work. In other words, it needs to be played to the hilt with control and technique to be sure, but for once subtlety and nuance are not key.

  Certainly, the perceived quality of the work has not discouraged any of the great Strauss conductors, all of whom have included the work in their surveys. Timings, as always, are only a partial guide but again it is notable that Weigle does not drive the work in the way some interpreters do. For a foot-to-the-floor super-virtuosic approach few have ever topped Szell in Cleveland who plays the work nearly four minutes quicker than Weigle. So it would seem that Szell subscribes to my theory of pushing the work to its maximum and as such it remains a stunning celebration of orchestral brilliance. The shame is that the 1964 sound is good for its provenance but not revelatory - the single disc "Sony Essential Classics" issue can still be found online cheaply but the remastering which I think was done for the large 100+ disc "Szell Edition" has not been made available separately. Weigle does prefer a slower approach to the work than just about any other conductor, including all the usual suspects of Kempe, Karajan, Reiner and Krauss. Again, the excellence of playing and engineering support this view and indeed bring clarity to a complex score that can in some versions descend into a musical din. That never happens with Weigle - but if he does not dive into the depths of bathos then I am not sure he ever ascends the ecstatic heights either. Strauss was never averse to writing full-blown love scenes and those in the operas do not seem to provoke the displeasure that apparently this autobiographical one does. Certainly, the cinematic ardour of Strauss' writing brought out the dynamic best in Neeme Jarvi when he recorded the work as part of a Strauss cycle for Chandos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. That recording remarkably is now nearly thirty-three years old and includes a sparkling Till but also the ravishing but rare Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland Op.56 No.6 sung by Felicity Lott. This disc still sounds powerfully compelling and can be found very cheaply online from the usual 2nd hand sources as it has been deleted from the current Chandos catalogue. The Weigle performance under current consideration was again taken from concerts but this time no applause is retained and my sense is that the audience is slightly less audible than on the first disc. So overall, another impressive performance in excellent sound which again reveals the detail and brilliance of Strauss' writing without sentiment or excess.

By the third disc of this set, Weigle's performing preferences for Strauss are clear and well defined. These are not impulsive, hyper-romantic interpretations - the emotions are in tight control as is the playing. In many ways this third disc encapsulates the pros and cons of this approach. Don Juan suffers from underplaying the titular 'great lover' where sheer leaping energy and élan are surely key. Conversely, the early Symphony in F minor benefits from being taken rather seriously and emerges - in every sense - as a weightier work than it had seemed in other recordings. Worth repeating that another consistent feature is the high quality of playing and engineering both of which allow Weigle's attention to orchestral detail to register with impressive results - with parts of the complex scoring literally revealed in a way few interpretations manage. But in the case of Don Juan, that does result in a musical "can't see the wood for the trees" with some absolutely gorgeous playing - try the principal oboe's introduction of the love theme or the suitably heroic horn calls - but the very essence of the rakish Don Juan is missing. Timings do tell part of this story. Most performances lie within the 16 - 17 minute range. At 18:25 Weigle is rather staid. Interestingly, of recent versions only Honeck is slower - by just five seconds but he achieves this by making extreme contrasts between action and langour. Sinopoli in Dresden remarkably managed to break 19:00 (contrast that to Szell at 15:56). Much as I enjoy the way Sinopoli - and Weigle - challenge convention in this work I simply do not think it works. Going back to the remastered, classic, Kempe/Dresden performance there seems to be an ideal balance of lithe thrilling virtuosity and touching sentiment - which Kempe achieves in 16:15.

As mentioned above, the Symphony in F minor has its stature enhanced by Weigle's conscientious and serious approach. Composed when Strauss was not yet twenty, this is remarkably assured and substantial and for several years it was one of the works by which Strauss established his fame as both composer and conductor. But with the composition of the works on which his fame has endured, this symphony disappeared from the concert hall and recording studio. None of the famed Strauss interpreters chose to make commercial recordings and even now it is a rare work to be included in such collected surveys. Again it was Jarvi recording the work back in 1992 who was the first to do so, with the only other recordings one on Marco Polo by Michael Halász and a recent CPO disc from Herman Bäumer - neither of which I know. In every movement Jarvi is more flowing and swifter, though not by much, than Weigle and again it has to be said that the Chandos engineering still sounds very fine. But here, Weigle's additional gravitas and the rich weight of the Frankfurt orchestra serve the music well. Also, Weigle's precision with the balance and detail of the score reveal that Strauss already possessed a remarkable instinct for orchestral scoring. Even though this work is written for a very standard Brahmsian orchestra, Strauss writes with a real ear for instrumental timbre. Of course, there are few personal fingerprints there and more than a few opportunities for the listener to play spot the influence but there can be no doubt of the phenomenal talent already on display. I must admit, this is a work I only listen to on rare occasions but the performance here by Weigle is quite excellent in every respect and a highlight of this set.

The fourth disc is dedicated to the final and most extended of the tone poems; Eine Alpensinfonie. Weigle's performance was given nearly exactly a century after the work's premiere; October 28th 1915 in Berlin and November 1st 2015 in Frankfurt. When reviewing other performances of this piece I have commented that it can be treated as either a glorious sequence of postcard impressions of a literal day in the Alps from dawn to dusk or as an allegory for man, his life, experiences and aspirations - once again drawing on the Nietzschian philosophy that inspired much of Strauss' art. No surprise that the strength of Weigle's performance comes from its control of the structure and sweep of the work rather than focussing on individual episodes. Along with Sinfonia Domestica this was for many years the most derided of the mature orchestral works and as such its presence in the recorded catalogue was somewhat limited until Karl Böhm's Dresden recording in 1957 and more significantly Rudolf Kempe with the RPO in 1966. This latter stereo LP revealed the scale of the piece to a domestic listener since when roughly sixty other recordings have been made, with more being added every year.

Although a pictorial approach is perfectly valid, personally I find a broader more considered interpretation makes a more lasting impression. As a consequence, Weigle does underplay the overt pictorialism of at the waterfall or on the Alpine pasture (replete with cow bells) for example but, conversely, the section that approaches the summit through to the glorious vision is impressively powerful with the Frankfurt brass displaying ideal power without any crudeness. In this work Weigle's performance sits at the swifter end of the range of timings - Kempe in Dresden and with the RPO a minute or so faster, Karajan's only commercial - early digital - recording a minute or so slower. One of my favourite recordings - itself now fifteen years old - on Naxos from Antoni Wit and the Staatskapelle Weimar completes the journey in around 54 minutes. The great thing with Wit's Weimar players is they match Weigle's Frankfurters for richness and warmth and the Naxos engineering is some of their best too with the weight of lower orchestral instruments underpinning the work with resonant power. Revisiting Kempe's Dresden recording in the remastered version which I recently acquired brought it home to me all over again his especial skill at fusing the kinetic and reflective aspects of this work and Kempe's fluency in this and other pieces in this set does definitely hark back to the earlier performing tradition of Strauss which avoided overblown musical gestures .

Very often, you will find a conductor to be particularly good at one aspect of this multi-faceted work. Nelsons' decade old recording with the CBSO, for example, is superb in the dramatic Thunder and Tempest but less emotionally overwhelming in the summit/vision - Kempe does seem to find a near ideal balance. Taking the aforementioned Thunder and Tempest, Weigle charts a more judicious rather than precipitous path through it. My reaction was much the same as I had to the battle sequence in Heldenleben. No-one would argue that either passage contains much "great" music but it is highly descriptive and quite why Weigle avoids any hint of excess let alone the implicit drama here I do not know. Once the storm has passed, Weigle closing ten minutes or so are suitably poised and radiant with the Frankfurt principal oboe and horn again playing with sovereign control and beauty. So overall another performance that falls into the pattern of superbly played and recorded, conducted with care and great attention to detail but somehow missing the exalting heights of the very finest versions.

Disc five opens with Tod und Verklärung - another work that courted controversy on its appearance with the twenty-five-year-old composer embracing the essential truths of life and death. This alone shows how far Strauss had developed the concept of the tone poem from the Lisztian historical characters to embracing abstract ideas. No surprise that Weigle sits again at the slower end of the range of performances; a full four minutes slower than Kempe but a good two swifter than Sinopoli. The very opening of the work, full of ill-ease, and foreboding gets a wonderfully evocative performance. Another heart-rendingly beautiful piece of playing from the principal oboe and the orchestra's leader playing the regret-laden lyrical themes while the uneven heart-beat of the dying person shudders below. The various feverish 'attacks' are also powerfully depicted - in this work it strikes me that Weigle seems more willing to press forward with greater emotional urgency than he has been in some of the works. Interesting to note that the recording date for this is identical to the Don Juan reviewed above which lacks the individuality evident here. Certainly, Weigle pushes the emotional envelope more in Tod than some of these works, aided as ever by the all-round excellence of playing and recording. The moment of death is caught with a wonderfully deep stroke on the tam-tam with the following upward reaching transfiguration theme paced with perfect momentum and sense of visionary rapture. This is one of the finest new versions of this work I have heard and fully worthy to sit beside catalogue classics such as Karajan or Abbado but both those DG recordings cannot match the range and detail of Oehms. Honeck in Pittsburgh is again predictably impressive but for once I feel that in purely expressive terms he is here trumped by Weigle.

The liner note for this set refers to Aus Italien as a transitional work moving from symphonic four movement form towards the poetic tone poem. But goodness me what a transition! Written in 1886 Strauss was still just twenty-two but the strides from the impressive but generic Symphony of three years earlier is huge. So many of the mature musical fingerprints can be heard for the first time from characteristic melodic shapes and flashes of brilliant orchestration to a sense of scale and sweep quite unlike any other composer of the time - let alone personal age. Again, Krauss and Kempe deemed it worth recording but none of the other 'main' Strauss conductors did including Szell, Karajan, Maazel, Mehta, Solti or Sinopoli. Post Kempe, Jarvi included it in his survey, as did Zinman but otherwise recordings until recently have been quite spotty. In recent years alongside Weigle, it has featured in the Francois-Xavier Roth cycle on Hanssler and individual performances from Bertrand de Billy in Vienna and Ariane Matiakh in Berlin as well as others. Norman del Mar considered it worth recording and he is always worth hearing in Strauss but sadly the Aarhus orchestra in 1991 were not fully equal to Strauss' demands. Another version I do enjoy was Fabio Luisi's incomplete set from Dresden but before that series got cancelled he did record a very good Aus Italien.

Although titled "Symphonic Fantasy" this work does follow the standard Romantic four movement symphonic form whilst also giving each movement a title which allows for an 'impression' of an Italian scene rather than anything too detailed in narrative terms. Hence the opening is a simple "In the Campagna" although it could also embody a later-day "Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside". As ever, across the various versions there is a fairly wide range of timings from Jarvi striding across the landscape in a brisk 8:26 to Roth enjoying every vista at 10:47. My feeling with Weigle is that he is strong in the atmospheric opening but rather staid again once the movement gathers momentum. This is not simply a question of 'speed' but of sustaining the tension and line across a phrase. Roth, at his challengingly slow speed, does this rather well giving one of Strauss' first great lyrical themes (it occurs around 3:00 in most versions) a real sense of direction and evolution. Of course, Weigle and the Frankfurt orchestra are far too good so this is still a pretty gorgeous section but without the rapt focus Roth finds. Kempe's Dresdeners, as recorded, are not as sumptuous as the Frankfurt ensemble, and even though the timings are pretty close - Kempe just 10 seconds quicker - Kempe's magic way with a turn of phrase makes this more affectionate, warmer hearted, his use of rubato within a basic tempo more impulsive in its effect. Weigle is noble when the music does not really need nobility. Likewise, in the following In the ruins of Rome even though Kempe is a full fifty seconds slower than Weigle he paints a richer more nuanced picture which conveys more energy and variety than the newer recording - Kempe is lithe and leaping whereas Weigle seems rather earthbound at nearly identical tempi. No surprise that the energetic Jarvi is quickest of the lot and the RSNO play well and are caught in exciting sound by Chandos. But this is a good example of Jarvi's penchant for playing through music with a kind of kinetic excitement in place of much subtlety.

The third movement, On the beach at Sorrento, is sometimes characterised as Strauss at his most impressionistic - a slightly tenuous description given that the term usually applies to music written after 1890 but certainly this music is all about mood rather than detailed representations in sound. I hear more influence of Wagner in Forest Murmurs mood rather than anything else. Strauss' textures are headily luxuriant and most performances respond to this in making this the longest section of the work - indeed the range of timings here is much smaller, with all the performances falling in the 12-13 minute range except for Bertrand Billy who somehow manages to trot along the beach in just 9:56 - and in the process loses nearly all the langour that surely Strauss did intend. Weigle along with Kempe are at the faster end of the range at 12:08 and 12:11 respectively. Both sound very fine with the ever excellent Oehms recording revealing the lush and sophisticated textures of Strauss' writing but again it is Kempe who is able to nudge and caress the rubato in the music to greater effect. That said this Weigle performance is greatly enjoyable through the sheer poise and control of the playing. This is a movement which responds to the more emotionally objective Weigle but that said a particular favourite is Fabio Luisi also in Dresden with one of the slowest versions running to 12:54 who teases out every ounce of rapt beauty from this lovely movement.

Strauss rather spoils the mood with as banal a finale as it is possible to imagine. He takes as his theme for the Scenes from Neopolitan Life the popular tune "Funiculi funicula" which does not bother me as such one way or the other but Strauss' treatment over-inflates a rather short-breathed melody. Then, he revisits themes from the earlier movements not, one feels, out of any particular musical or narrative necessity but simply to "show off" that he had the compositional chops to do it. This is an instance where a blast-to-the-finishing-line approach probably pays greatest dividends and a rare instance where quite probably bombast is best. A surprise given Weigle's preference for moderation, it is indeed this version that is the quickest of the versions that I know squeezing in just a few seconds ahead of Kempe. Not that Weigle does bombast - it’s just a very nimble and suitably virtuosic performance and another great showcase for the collective skill of his orchestra. I have to say, I always enjoy listening to Aus Italien, even allowing for this finale, and overall Weigle give a fine interpretation.

The final disc combines two of the most famous and greatest of the Strauss tone poems. The opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra remains probably the one piece that nearly everyone will recognise whether they have an interest in Classical Music or not. For people of a certain age it simply means "Space", whether from 2001 A Space Odyssey or the Apollo Missions. For such a superficially simple section, it is remarkably hard to 'bring off' with the awe-inspiring epic effect Strauss intended. From weak or out of tune organ or timpani, to laboured tempi and slack ensemble this opening marks the card for many a recording. Weigle's recording is predictably fine in technical terms. The organ sounds massive and the opening pedal note suitably powerful. Indeed, throughout the work, the Oehms production team do a superb job handling the sheer complexity of the score. For me Weigle makes the cardinal error of extending the semiquaver/sixteenth note in Sunrise at the end of every second bar which simply deprives the music of energy, direction and impetus. He is not as indulgent in this as some conductors but when it is played simply dead in time the effect is so much better. Notable that conductors such as Solti, Mackerras and Karajan play it 'straight'. Back in 2010 I reviewed a performance of this work by Herbert Blomstedt in Dresden and wrote; "Wonderfully safe, magnificently secure, utterly untroubled yet fractionally bland. A couple of little instances; in the ravishingly lyrical Das Tanzlied section the solo violin is a shade literal." This is exactly how I feel about this current performance. The 2010 review drew comparisons with a live Karajan/BPO performance on HDTT which I made a disc of the year back then and the difference is just as strong there. Karajan's leader Michel Schwalbé finds in the Tanzlied a beguiling lilting, almost subversive, beauty that Weigle does not seem to wish to seek. As with many performances in this set, I find myself impressed not compelled. Yes, the climax of the midnight bell - a proper church bell here - is overwhelmingly powerful but the performance as a whole does not sweep me away as this work can.

The set is completed with what is arguably Strauss' finest tone poem; Don Quixote. The finest because in it he finds the most remarkable balance between the narrative demands of the tone poem and the structural/musical requirements of absolute music - here a set of Symphonic Variations. The fact that Strauss was able to create a coherent set of variations whilst also depicting everything from windmills to sheep to incipient madness remains one of the great displays of orchestral writing. Add to that a demanding solo part for cello and a substantial viola role as well. For Weigle these soloists are Isang Enders on cello and Thomas Rössel on viola. Neither player is known to me and sadly the booklet provides no information. Online sources tell me that Enders is a Korean-German cellist who was appointed aged 20 as principal cellist of the Dresden Staatskapelle - a post he held for four years. What is not clear is whether he now has a similar role in Frankfurt or is a full-time soloist. Not that that matters - his playing here is absolutely superb and beautifully recorded by the Oehms engineers too. Thomas Rössel started as a principal player in Leipzig and now apparently does have that role in Frankfurt - his playing is equally fine.

Of course, this work has attracted all the great players of every generation. The live Karajan Zarathustra recording mentioned above is coupled with a live Don Quixote from 1975 featuring Msistlav Rostropovich and again it must be said that this very good Frankfurt performance has to give precedence to the Karajan interpretation which operates on another level of insight and expression. There are great benefits to be had listening to this new recording in terms of detail and scoring and sheer brilliance of composition and execution. But to be drawn into the narrative, Karajan is the guide. In this work Strauss achieves a humanity, an empathy with his characters that eluded him elsewhere in his pursuit of lofty philosophy or blustering heroes or generic landscapes. With Weigle you can fully appreciate ever narrative twist and turn without being drawn into the comic-tragic story in the way Karajan/Rostropovich do. The closing pages, which depict the death of Don Quixote, are some of the most affecting Strauss ever wrote. Here, Enders is very good indeed but just lacking that last drop of valedictory poignancy that can mark out the finest of versions.

As a modern set of recordings offering top-notch engineering - albeit it in standard CD format - at a competitive price this set is worth considering. The playing and interpretations across the set are consistent, with brilliant playing by all sections of the Frankfurter Opern-und Museumorchester supporting uncontroversial musical insights. Of course, some may respond to Weigle's measured style more than I. Only in the Symphony and Tod do I feel that Weigle joins the very top rank of performances and I would seek out his versions in those works. The live recordings are uniformly excellent although across the six discs there is a reasonable amount of extraneous audience and podium noise. This did not bother me, but some might find it disturbing. The inclusion of some applause after one work only seems a little odd. Timings across the discs are reasonably generous but by limiting the set to six discs this does mean that other 'standard' Strauss works for orchestra are missing; from Metamorphosen to the Couperin Suite or any of the operatic suites and selections or indeed any of the concertante works. But then no set by a single conductor is absolutely complete so the collector will be mixing and matching.

A reliable if not always inspiring guide to these key Strauss orchestral works.

Nick Barnard



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Editorial Board
MusicWeb International
Founding Editor
   
Rob Barnett
Editor in Chief
John Quinn
Seen & Heard
Editor Emeritus
   Bill Kenny
MusicWeb Webmaster
   David Barker
Postmaster
Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb Founder
   Len Mullenger