Strauss sits alongside Mahler as a leading conductor – as well as composer - of his age, winning plaudits and support even before the age of 20 from contemporaneous luminaries such as Hans von Bülow. In fact between them, Mahler and Strauss controlled the two most powerful opera houses in the world in their mid-Thirties, with Strauss in Berlin and Mahler in Vienna.
Strauss’s ‘Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character’, as Don Quixote is subtitled, is one of the composer’s most popular tone poems, principally because of the beautifully drawn central characters of the Don (performed by a solo cellist) and Sancho Panza (viola). These roles are luxuriously cast in this new recording, being taken by Hyperion artists Alban Gerhardt and Lawrence Power. The merry tale of Till Eulenspiegel completes this release.
Lorin Maazel usually is a very good Strauss conductor, and he's at his best in these live recordings. He launches Don Juan with considerable gusto, and only the quiet passage before the famous horn theme sounds as if it could move a bit more purposefully forward. The orchestra plays extremely well, as it does in Death and Transfiguration, an interpretation full of excitement and (at the end) exaltation, and without a trace of the affectation that sometimes mars Maazel's work. The truth is, he has such a fine podium technique that it sometimes seems he does things because he can, rather than because he should–but not here. This performance, and the smoldering, sultry, deliciously trashy Salomé's Dance, are the disc's highlights. The Rosenkavalier Suite closes the program in ebullient fashion, though the music itself isn't quite so much fun as the other items on the program. The live sonics are good, a touch raw at the climaxes, but very acceptable. I do wish, though, that the applause had been edited out. Recommended.
The other major orchestral release here features the Richard Strauss recordings conducted for Sony Classical by Zubin Mehta.
The G major Anton Rubinstein violin concerto is a fine and powerful work, quite as good as many a lesser-known Russian example in the same genre, and easily as deserving of wider currency as, say, the Taneyev Suite de Concert, which is just as rarely heard these days. Nishizaki gives a committed and polished reading, though you often feel that this is music written by a pianist who had marginally less facility when writing for the violin. Still, here’s a well-schooled performance, full of agreeable touches of imagination (the Andante shows Nishizaki’s fine-spun tone to particularly good effect) delivered with crisply economical urgency that makes good musical sense even of the work’s plainer and less idiomatic passages.
These recordings were made by Erato shortly before Barenboim took over as musical director at Chicago and were hailed at the time as the best possible foretaste of the partnership. Until recently they were available on Warner’s mid-price Elatus label but, despite the strong recommendations which they received in that form, such is the economic pressure of the times that they have now been further reduced to the budget-price Apex label.