Strauss: Orchestral Works Box set, Import
When it comes to the music of Richard Strauss, none of the world's great orchestras has a more distinguished tradition than the Staatskapelle Dresden. As pit orchestra of the Dresden Court Opera, the Staatskapelle was involved in the premieres, between 1901 and 1911, of Feuersnot, Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier; later, with Karl Böhm conducting, its players participated in the premiere of Daphne. Most of Strauss's major tone poems have been in the Dresden orchestra's concert repertory since completion.
Back in the 1970s, EMI was able to capitalize on this association when it reunited the Staatskapelle with Rudolf Kempe--a native of Dresden, one of the master conductors of the 20th century, and an absolutely authoritative Straussian--for an integral recording of Strauss's orchestral works and concertos. The cycle was warmly received when it was originally released on LP, and it has become one of the treasures of the CD catalog since EMI reissued it whole, in three volumes, in 1992. With this latest repackaging, the whole impressive enterprise becomes available in one box.
Across the board, Kempe and the Dresdeners give magnificent readings of the music. Their Zarathustra is imposing and grand; their Heldenleben suitably heroic and quite smashingly played; their Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan delightfully brisk, characterful, and exultant (the latter is dispatched in a blazing 16:06, and receives as ardent and exhilarating a reading as you are ever likely to encounter on disc). One of the finest of all the offerings is the account of Eine Alpensinfonie, a Kempe favorite and still a sonic knockout after nearly three decades.
The less familiar orchestral works are here, as well, including the early tone poems Aus Italien and Macbeth and the admittedly rather frothy ballet scores Josephslegende and Schlagobers. Of special value are the accounts of all Strauss's concerted works, from the early Violin Concerto (played by Ulf Hoelscher) and Burleske for piano and orchestra (with Malcolm Frager as soloist), through Don Quixote (featuring Paul Tortelier in magisterial form) and the two horn concertos, to the Oboe Concerto of 1946 and the final Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon.
It's hard to imagine any label tackling such a project in today's bottom-line environment, or coming up with such definitive readings from today's performers. All the more reason to celebrate the appearance of this compendium. --Ted Libbey
In fact, I'd go so far as to call the Zinman series not only a worthy successor to the Kempe, but perhaps even a replacement for it. Kempe partisans may consider these fighting words, but for all of Kempe's insight into Strauss' music born of lifelong familiarity, there was frequently something strait-laced about his conducting of these opulent scores, to their detriment. My estimation of the Kempe cycle has slipped since 2002, when I wrote an enthusiastic review of it on this site, and now I find that Zinman often allows the music's essential character to come through more positively. So "Ein Heldenleben," for example, presents a heroic demeanor, nonetheless free of bombast, that the older recording lacks. "Don Quixote" here receives one of the best-characterized AND most cohesive performances ever recorded, even without the help of a superstar cellist such as Rostropovich or Tortelier. While on the subject of outstanding work by lesser-known soloists, "Four Last Songs" as sung by Melanie Diener is less a showcase for the soprano voice than a cycle of meditations on fulfilled old age and impending death. Diener's voice is as supple as they come, but she uses this ability to express the meaning of the words rather than stage a fireworks show. Accordingly, Zinman scales down the accompaniment, so that it's plain we're listening to a work in Strauss' late style, not a junior version of "Eine Alpensinfonie" (which, at the other end of the spectrum, blows its 20 horns for all they're worth).
In shor, there's not a dull patch in this set, and while it might not be to the taste of every Straussian, it should serve the listener who wants a fresh perspective.
You will notice the lack of the word "complete" in the title of this boxed set, and not all the included works fit the title. The "Four Last Songs" don't match the title, but personally, I will listen to this set of orchestral Lieder anytime; this is one of Strauss' finest works. And the Op 7 Serenade in E flat for 13 wind instruments is an anomaly.
It appears that there is no complete set available, although there have been traversals of Strass' works which have been released in single volumes at a time. You may be able to assemble all issues in such a set, but I doubt they would cover all works, and, as far as I can find, these releases are not recent.
If you are after a representative collection of the Orchestral works of Strauss, there are only two choices: this 7-disc set, recorded and released individually between 2000-20002, then as a boxed set in 2003, (that issue has now been discontinued, but BMG under their subsidiary Arte Nova label saw the wisdom to re-issue it in 2006, so I am placing that review here as well); and a 9-disc set with the Dresden Orchestra under Kempe, made back, as I recall, in the 70s (unfortunately, as I understand, no longer available). Kempe and his musicians produced a top-class series, superbly played, recorded with analog technology, and the sound stood up up well to the transfer to CD. At the time of their release they were hailed both for the standard of performance and recording quality, with particular comment on the standard of the Dresden players.
However, if you want a modern recording, you will not be let down by this set. The track listing of the 2003 release was full of errors, omitting some works, so I will append a list of works at the end of this review, just in case that hasn't been corrected.
We are so taken by the "name" orchestras, that many have not noticed that the overall standard of performance from many modern well-known orchestras is not quite what it was a few decades ago. There is such an emphasis on technical standards, and producers frequently fear to allow a slightly different reading in case it doesn't sell, that many modern recordings are of high technical standard, but a degree of musicality has been lost. Meanwhile, in Europe, there are quite a few orchestras that have risen to quite high standards AND not lost touch with musicality.
The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich is one such ensemble, and under Zinman have produced a set of Strauss works well able to stand up against the old Kempe recordings. It would take too long to discuss each work: suffice to say this is a well-chosen collection of superbly interpreted and played works, recorded with very high-quality, full-bodied, rounded sound. As an example, the huge orchestral demands of the Alpine Symphony (among the best performances available) place no strain on the quality of the recorded sound. The set has been giving me much pleasure and in the time I have been listening to it I am finding that Zinman's readings are more clearly defined than Kempe's, and the wider dynamic range of the CD format allows him to give better expression to the dynamics of the compositions. So I am pleased to be able to give this set a very definite thumbs up in all aspects. You can probably hunt and find individual performances of each work that you think marginally better. But that is a lot of hunting for small gains. It is a close call between this and the Dresden set, but after some listening, this is the choice for me. And it is such a bargain, with no compromises in any department. So I can recommend the set without reservation.
Works on the 7 quite well-filled discs: (1) Aus Italien Op 16, Macbeth Op 23; (2) Ein Heldenleben Op 49, Tod and Verklarung Op 24; (3) Don Juan Op 20, Till Eulenspiegel's lustige Streiche Op 28, Also Sprach Zarathustra Op 39; (4) Ein Alpensinfonie Op64, Festliches Präludium Op 61; (5)Metamorphosen AV 142, Vier letzte Lieder AV 150, Oboe Concerto in D maj AV 144; (6) Sinfonia Domestica Op 53, Parergon Op 73: (7) Don Quixote Op 35, Romance in F maj for 'cello and orchestra AV 75; Serenade in E flat maj for 13 wind instruments Op 7.