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César FRANCK (1822-1890) Le Chasseur maudit (1881-82) [15:31] Variations symphoniques for piano and orchestra, FWV 46 (1885) [15:09] Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Burleske for piano and orchestra in D minor, AV 85 (1885, rev. 1889) [20:13] Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1889) [23:12]
Ekaterina Litvintseva (piano)
Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Jonathan Bloxham
rec. 2020, Stadtpark Schützenhof, Herford, Germany PROFIL PH20060 [74:28]
Siberian-born pianist Ekaterina Litvintseva, now in her mid-thirties, has garnered quite a reputation as an upcoming star soloist. For her earlier concerto recordings of Brahms, Chopin, and Mozart, she was accompanied by the smallish Klassische Philharmonie Bonn. Here her partners are the substantially larger Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, numbering around 80 members, who on the basis of this disc are an orchestra to be reckoned with. The programme is neatly divided between two concertante works and two symphonic poems, all of which were composed in the 1880s. While one does not normally associate Franck and Richard Strauss together, they make for a most convincing partnership on this recording. If the performances were not of the high caliber they are, the combination of these pieces would still make this programme unique in the discography.
While the main attraction is likely the piano works, the symphonic poems are also superbly played and interpreted for the most part. Beginning with Franck’s Lisztian Le Chasseur maudit, the horn fanfares leave a bit to be desired in their tuning and steadiness. However, from there things improve greatly. This may not be the most exciting Accursed Huntsman, but it is overall a fine, solid account. The recent one by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Jean-Luc Tingaud (Naxos) would take some beating. It is the wildest performance since the old Boston Symphony/Munch recording on RCA, where the horns were not at all in tune. Tadaaki Otaka’s account with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Chandos) is also recommendable. Bloxham and his Northwest German orchestra fall somewhere behind Tingaud or Otaka and could have benefited from a shot of adrenalin, lacking the élan of Tingaud and Munch. The performance sags a little in the middle section (before and after the 9:00 mark) and the tubular bells are really too discreet. I have nothing but praise, though, for the other performances on the CD.
For me a favourite Franck’s Symphonic Variations has been Rudolf Firkušný’s patrician account with the Royal Philharmonic/Flor (RCA) coupled with a very good D minor Symphony. However, I find Litvintseva’s more extrovert performance equally attractive. She plays it to the hilt, but always at the service of the music with plentiful dynamic variety and shading. The meditative passages are deeply felt and she brings joy and verve to the finale. The orchestra accompanies very well, leaving little to be desired. All the same, this is nothing compared to the Strauss Burleske that is the best I have ever heard.
Strauss’s Burleske has sometimes gotten a bad rap as being too “Brahmsian” and, yes, there are influences of Brahms both in the piano and orchestral parts. Still, it basically sounds like genuine Strauss and formally it is ingenious. I cannot think of another work where the solo timpani has such an important role as its dialogue with the piano here. From the opening timpani strokes where the instrument has the first subject to itself, the timpani are quiet yet pinpoint clear in this recording. One anticipates a special event. My reference version has always been the fiery Janis/Reiner account on RCA. It still makes quite an impact, but now sounds its age with a harsh and shallow recording. I also compared Litvintseva/Bloxham with another account in my collection, Daniel Barenboim’s with Zubin Mehta and the Berlin Philharmonic (Sony). That one is too mannered and rather slapdash for my taste. The recording is also beefy with the timpani on the tubby side. I can describe Litvintseva/Bloxham as exalted in comparison to the others. The orchestra and piano are in perfect accord and, indeed, are treated as equals. Litvintseva has technique to burn in the bravura passages, but also eases nicely in the lyrical passages. The section beginning at 10:50 is especially beautiful—thoughtful, but not exaggerated tempo-wise. In every way, this is a gorgeous performance that I cannot imagine being bettered anytime soon.
Bloxham also has the measure of Tod und Verklärung. This evergreen piece has been recorded to death (no pun intended!) and any new account would have to have something special to say to be a viable addition to the discography. It is no small compliment that this performance holds up well to the classic Rudolf Kempe EMI recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden with which I compared it. The Northwest German Philhamronic’s performance, as dramatic and beautifully played as Kempe’s and with added warmth to the sound, is irresistible. The timpani also make real impact here and the solo winds are beguiling. Only the strings do not possess quite the heft of the Staatskapelle Dresden’s, but then that orchestra’s Strauss was in most respects nonpareil.
I would not hesitate in recommending this disc for anyone wanting the particular combination of works that fit together so well. As to the individual pieces, the Burleske is mandatory in my view while the Symphonic Variations and Tod und Verklärung are equal to any I have heard. Only Le Chasseur maudit disappoints in some ways, but primarily in comparison to those cited above. The CD booklet contains an interesting interview with Litvintseva on her career and her reasons for choosing the works on this programme. She indicates that she toured these works with the orchestra and Bloxham before setting down these recordings. Her rapport with the orchestra is palpable and much thought went into the selection of pieces for this disc.