Roth’s Strauss Set

cover SWR19426CD

STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben. Tod und Verklärung. Till Eulenspiegel. Don Quixote.* Macbeth. Also Sprach Zarathustra. Aus Italien. Eine Alpensinfonie. Don Juan. Symphonia Domestica. Metamorphosen / *Frank-Michael Guthmann, cel; Johannes Lüthy, vla; SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; François-Xavier Roth, cond / SWR Classic SWR19426CD

French conductor François-Xavier Roth, who assumed the directorship of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg after Michael Gielen’s retirement, here attempts to assume the mantle of Richard Strauss interpreter in a boxed set that is not quite as complete as the legendary one that the late Rudolf Kempe made back in the early-to-mid 1970s. Ironically, Kempe resented recording the complete Strauss oeuvre because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a Strauss specialist; though he liked the composer’s music, he was much more committed to Beethoven, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Wagner, and he felt that the raves from the critics over his Strauss recordings made him an “expert” in that field when he was not.

Although I own the Kempe set (it was reissued by Brilliant Classics several years ago), certain pieces in it didn’t thrill me, particularly Also Sprach Zarathustra. I much preferred the 1954 Fritz Reiner recording to Kempe’s, and now I have added Thomas Dausgaard’s stunning new version to my list of favorites. In addition, I don’t much like Metamorphosen or the Symphonia Domestica, no matter who conducts them, and I’m not all that crazy about the Alpine Symphony.

Although this boxed set is just being released now, the recordings therein are not new. In fact, Roth began making these recordings with the SWR Baden-Baden/Freiburg orchestra in 2013, even before he succeeded Gielen as the orchestra’s music director. I reviewed Vol. 1 of this series for a major classical record magazine when it came out (it contained two of my favorite Strauss works, Ein Heldenleben (forever identified in my mind with Willem Mengelberg’s stupendous 1941 recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra) and Tod und Verklärung (best performed, in my view, by Toscanini and George Szell), and wasn’t altogether bowled over by his performance of the former piece but was by his Tod und Verklärung. Having not listened to those performances in eight years, however, I was able to approach this reissue with fresh ears.

Kempe’s Ein Heldenleben was also not on the level of Mengelberg, but it had a nice sweep and cohesion, and as usual he drew some absolutely gorgeous playing out of the Staatskapelle Dresden Orchestra (Kempe always had a sound profile somewhere between Karajan and Toscanini, less Romantically rich than the first but not quite as clear and brilliant as the latter). Comparing Kempe to Roth rather than Mengelberg, one hears an even leaner sound. I’m not altogether certain that this is as much Roth himself as it is the orchestra, since Gielen, who was still music director at the time, also preferred a lean orchestral sound. I find that if I don’t pull out my Mengelberg recording as a comparison, Roth does pretty well with the music but, once again, he just misses some of the sweep that even Kempe gave to it. Mind you, it’s not at all a bad performance, but my bar is set very high to begin with. He does have his moments, but there are spots where it lacks just a bit of sweep that I miss, e.g., the wind ensemble at the beginning of band 2, where he doesn’t really “bind” the sound as well as Kempe did. In addition, Roth’s pauses in the music are invariably just a bit too long, which makes the piece sound even more episodic than it is. (Incidentally, Toscanini also left us a very fine reading of Heldenleben that also just misses the peak that Mengelberg set.) So as of right now, Kempe’s recording is still my favorite among the stereo versions. By contrast, I again found Roth’s Tod und Verklärung to be superb—but again, not quite on the level of Szell or Toscanini.

Moving on to CD 2, one hears an absolutely splendid rendition of Till Eulenspiegel, in fact one of the very finest recordings of it I’ve ever heard—even as good as Strauss’ own. (Although Strauss made a decent but very primitive-sounding recording back in the 1920s, I generally prefer his 1944 performance taken from a German film.) Roth misses absolutely nothing here; all is lively, pointed and humorous. Don Quixote is taken at a much more relaxed pace than Strauss conducted it back in 1936, a classic recording with the great Italian cellist Enrico Mainardi, but this is a viable alternative; both Kempe and Toscanini, in his late studio recording, also play it a bit on the slow side. Roth certainly does not fail to bring out the orchestral detail—indeed, at the four-minute mark in the opening movement, one can hear the cross-playing of the brass instruments even clearer than in Toscanini’s recording—although Frank Michael Guthmann is not as stellar a cellist as Mainardi, Paul Tortelier (with Kempe) or Frank Miller (with Toscanini). Roth actually makes much more of the tilting at the windmills than did Kempe. This performance goes straight to the top, for me, among stereo/digital recordings of this work.

This CD ends with the not-well-known Macbeth, a piece that Strauss tinkered with for years. It has some very good passages in it but, like most of his music after Der Rosenkavalier, there’s a lot of empty, bombastic filler material. Nonetheless, Roth’s performance is again first-rate.

On CD 3, Also Sprach Zarathustra starts out like a house on fire. Could this be another great performance to compare to Reiner (1954) or Dausgaard? Yes, indeed it is, and closer to Reiner than even the Dausgaard recording, with its leaner sound and crisp brass and wind attacks. The phrasing is also like Reiner’s, a bit more staccato and less flowing than Dausgaard, but that doesn’t bother me much. The only defect I heard in this performance was his stiff phrasing in the section titled “Der Genesende”; that alone put it second to Reiner in my estimation. Aus Italien is not one of Strauss’ strongest works, but Kempe made it sound pretty good. Roth tries but cannot quite pull it together as well. Not bad, but not a great performance either. Kempe just got more out of the music than Roth did.

By contrast, however, Roth clearly gets more out of the uneven Ein Alpensinfonie (CD 4) than Kempe did by virtue of his darker, leader textures and slightly faster tempi in every section but one. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever really enjoyed a performance of this piece, although, to be honest, I’ve avoided listening to too many other recordings because I didn’t like it. Roth almost makes it sound like a masterpiece, and that’s going some. His Don Juan is also played with great gusto and plenty of textual clarity.

The fifth and last CD consists of two works I’ve never liked, the Sinfonia Domestica and the Metamorphosen for 21 strings. The latter, in fact, I consider to be one of the worst pieces Strauss ever wrote, goopy, over-sentimentalized and overlong, but the Sinfonia is pretty awful, too. Roth does his best to breathe some life into the former, and indeed manages to punch up some passages nicely, but the music is just empty bombast and says nothing. If you like this work, however, this is the recording for you. Roth’s performance of the Metamorphosen is typically leaden and he doesn’t make the music any more interesting.

So. If you want the whole set, go for it, but my recommendation is to acquire Vols. 2 through 4 of the individual releases: SWR Music 93304, 93320 and 93335. You’ll be very happy with those.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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