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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 [17:35]
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 [52:26]
San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 31 May-1 June 1988, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Presto CD
DECCA 421 815-2 [70:12]

This CD includes what I think is the second recording by Herbert Blomstedt of Don Juan. There’s an earlier recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden which I have on an appetising two-fer of orchestral music by Strauss (review). It’s a long time since I took that set down from my shelves and, looking at it now, I wonder if the recording dates are accurately stated. The recordings of Don Juan and Also Sprach Zarathustra were apparently made in August 1987 and the date of the other recordings is given as February 1989. At the time I acquired this set I didn’t give a second thought to those dates. However, Blomstedt was chief conductor in Dresden from 1975 to 1985, after which he moved to the San Francisco Symphony (1985 – 1995). I doubt he would have been recording with the Staatskapelle after 1985 and it would be surprising if he’d felt the need to set down Don Juan again in San Francisco less than a year after his Dresden version. So maybe the dates given on the Dal Segno disc aren’t quite right.

Returning to the Dresden recording after quite some time, there’s much to admire in the performance but I have a definite preference for the sound achieved by the Decca engineers. The Dresden recording sounds somewhat edgy by comparison, perhaps because the balance is closer than is the case with Decca. I enjoyed the San Francisco performance very much. At the start Blomstedt impels the music forward with no little drive and throughout the performance the dashing side of Strauss’s portrayal is well conveyed. By contrast, the love music (from 6:40) is tenderly done; the lovely solo oboe line is cushioned on a soft bed of string sound. Overall, it’s an excellent performance of this swaggering tone poem and it hardly needs saying that the playing of the San Francisco Symphony is terrific.

When I was first getting to know the music of Richard Strauss many years ago there was a body of opinion that Eine Alpensinfonie was an inferior work; an alpine travelogue scored on a gargantuan scale. I reasoned, however, that Strauss conductors of the calibre – and seriousness – of Haitink, Karajan and Kempe had thought it worth performing and recording the piece. Opportunities to hear the work live remain relatively limited, not least on account of the vast forces required, but distinguished conductors continue to record it. It may not be an unequivocal masterpiece but the score still has a great deal to offer. For one thing, it’s more tightly structured than some critics would allow; in addition, the orchestration is masterly. However, the work needs a strong-minded conductor who directs the proceedings with a sense of purpose, who resists the temptation to over-indulge in the musical scenery, and who exerts a strong narrative grip. Step forward Herbert Blomstedt.

Right from the start Blomstedt drew me into Strauss’s world; the depiction of ‘Night’ is darkly mysterious, the soft playing expertly balanced and controlled. The long crescendo to the ‘Sunrise’ is handled in masterly fashion and when the sun breaks through it’s a moment of true majesty. A little later, the off-stage hunting horns – the last word in orchestral extravagance – are ideally balanced. In the passage beginning with ‘By the waterfall’ and running through to ‘In the mountain pasture’ Strauss’s nature-painting is beautifully depicted by the San Francisco orchestra; between them, conductor, players and engineers work in alliance to ensure that all the intricate details of Strauss’s scoring come through – note the cowbells and chirruping birds during the ‘In the mountain pasture’ episode.

The approach to the mountain peak is very well handled; Blomstedt conveys the tension, not least in the hesitant oboe solo just before the mountain top is reached. When the summit is attained (tr 12, from 3:25) the San Franciscan brass are imperious and then the horn section collectively opens up a wonderful vista before our eyes – or, rather, our ears. From here on, and through the ‘Vision’ episode, the orchestration is simply fabulous in its richness. Blomstedt obtains a wonderful, ripely romantic sound yet never is there any risk of wallowing; momentum is maintained.

Later on, descending from the summit, Blomstedt whips up a fearsome ‘Storm’ but the storm clouds disperse just in time for us to experience a deep orange ‘Sunset’. There’s even more of a sunset glow, however, in the ‘Epilogue’. This glorious episode is echt-Strauss and Blomstedt makes it a wonderful homecoming before the darkness of ‘Night’ descends again. We have come full circle, but in the intervening fifty minutes or so, Strauss and Blomstedt have taken us on quite a musical and philosophical journey.

This is a very distinguished traversal of Eine Alpensinfonie. The performance is devoid of grandstanding; everything is thoroughly musical. I enjoyed the journey right the way from base camp to the very top and back again. The playing of the San Francisco Symphony is superb throughout and Decca’s recording, engineered by James Lock and John Pellowe and produced by Andrew Cornall, still sounds very handsome; you would not know that it’s 33 years old. The recording allows you to hear an abundance of detail while the big climaxes open up thrillingly. The skill of the engineers allows us to relish Strauss’s consummate skill and imagination in writing for the modern symphony orchestra. The notes are by that expert commentator, Michael Steinberg.

These fine Strauss recordings have been licensed by Presto Classical; their continued availability thanks to Presto is a cause for celebration

John Quinn

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