Strauss, R (Ein) Heldenleben; Tod und Verklärung
A very generously filled Double Decca gathers some of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Prokofiev recordings into a most enjoyable programme. Four symphonies appear – two popular ones (Nos 1 and 5), Prokofiev’s greatest (No 6) and his most delightful (No 7). In addition there are the Overture on Hebrew Themes in its sextet version and, the real discovery for me, the early Autumnal, a lush Scriabinesque nine-minute orchestral sketch. Three of the world’s finest orchestras appear – LSO (No 1 and Autumnal), Concertgebouw (No 5) and Cleveland (Nos 6 and 7). The finest performance here is the Fifth Symphony – spacious, beautifully unfolded, marvellously played and superbly recorded. The disc of Nos 6 and 7 is less convincing – Ashkenazy imposes himself a bit more here and the Seventh in particular feels pulled around. This is nevertheless an appealing collection which gives a nicely rounded picture of Prokofiev the symphonic composer.
Prokofiev’s friend and ‘cello muse’ Mstislav Rostropovich appears on a new Great Recording of the Century from EMI in two 20th-century cello concertos, both dating from 1970. Dutilleux’s work, subtitled Tout un monde lointain, has become almost a repertoire standard with a number of fine versions, but there is always something special about a première recording. Partnered by the Orchestre de Paris and that fine conductor, Serge Baudo, Rostropovich brings to the work’s five movements an impressive sense of coherence and a large dose of his usual passion. It’s a very appealing work – no wonder it was encored immediately at its Aix-en-Provence première. Lutoslawski himself conducts the same orchestra in his own Cello Concerto. Using aleatoric (chance) processes, the work never feels other than tightly controlled – throughout the piece, the cello seems to move closer to the orchestra, invariably to be rebuffed, until finally the soloist emerges heroically triumphant.
Confrontation of a different sort crops up in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben as the hero battles with his adversaries. Rudolf Kempe’s classic 1972 Staatskapelle Dresden recording reappears – rightly – as another Great Recording of the Century, generously coupled with the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Tod und Verklärung. As Michael Kennedy writes in his note, ‘Rudolf Kempe is one of the very select group of conductors about whom one rarely, if ever, hears a disapproving word from critics or musicians.’ In the music of Strauss, Kempe shows such sympathy that wonder and delight are the only justifiable reactions. These performances have a real deftness of touch and never sound heavy or over-blown.
More Strauss from EMI comes on the super-budget Encore label. Jeffrey Tate conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic in a 1992 programme of unusual operatic orchestral music (from Intermezzo, Capriccio, Die schweigsame Frau, Guntram and Die Frau ohne Schatten). The orchestra plays very well and Tate is careful to distinguish between the different styles of Strauss’s operatic output. The two longest works – Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo and the Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten (each about 22 minutes) – bookend the programme and receive an impressive sweep and range. Well worth exploring for around £5.
Also in the Encore series come two very rewarding orchestral collections, seven Weber overtures from the Philharmonia and Wolfgang Sawallisch and four Liszt symphonic poems (plus the Second Mephisto Waltz) from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur. The Weber overtures are wonderful distillations of their respective operas’ worlds and you sense from Sawallisch’s handling of these ever inventive scores that he really knows the operas that follow. There is great drama here and Weber never disappoints – I’ve always loved the Ruler of the Spirits Overture, which Sawallisch delivers in a cracking performance! The Liszt collection is something of a classic; while it would have made a perfectly justifiable Great Recording of the Century it’s great to have it at a super-budget Encore price. Liszt’s symphonic poems are amazingly inventive, with a range of effects that seem years ahead of their time. The 20-minute Tasso receives a thrilling performance, the orchestra clearly relishing every bar. Les préludes, a work of great atmosphere, is beautifully judged. These are two outstanding bargains.
Wolfgang Sawallisch reappears on another Encore disc, Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony, the choral Lobegesang (Hymn of Praise), recorded live. I caught a concert performance on Artsworld recently with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and really enjoyed reacquainting myself with this rarely heard piece. The BPO is the orchestra here, too, and Krisztina Láki, Mitsuko Shirai and Peter Seiffert (excellent) are the soloists with the Choir of Dusseldorf’s Musikverein. Like Abbado (who conducts a very impressive version for DG), Sawallisch clearly loves this piece and unfolds it with affection and great feeling for its important place in German choral music.
Next, a delightful set of the Mozart violin concertos from Cho-Liang Lin, the ECO and Raymond Leppard. These reappear on a two-disc set on Sony Classical’s mid-price Theta label. Lin’s graceful, stylish approach works well and Leppard always imbues his music-making with intoxicating verve and spirit. Reviewing the first disc in the series (Nos 3 and 5) back in December 1987, Edward Greenfield wrote that ‘there is an element of tenderness, of youthful lightness, all through Lin’s readings of both concertos, though there is no lack of bite and point either’. Lin’s performances are very exciting, full of vigour, yet nicely sensitive to the scale of these works. The set includes the two Rondos (K269 and K373) as well as the concertos but has dropped the alternative movements issued on the original release.
To close, a self-recommending collection of French Ballet Music from Sir Thomas Beecham (Delibes, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Massenet and Gounod). This is enchantment from start to close and the Delibes Le roi s’amuse and Gounod Faust music seem to sparkle even more thanks to having been recorded in Paris.