Strauss: Macbeth, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel - Welser-Most
Classical - Orchestral
Strauss: Macbeth, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel
The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Most (conductor)
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Review by Graham Williams - June 30, 2022
Though the profile of the Cleveland Orchestra is not as high as it used to be with the so-called ‘major’ record companies, be in no doubt that it is still one of the finest body of musicians in the world as this superb release on the orchestra’s own label irrefutably confirms.
Franz Welser-Möst has been at the helm of this orchestra for more than twenty years and has maintained the superlative standards set by his six distinguished predecessors of whom George Szell and Lorin Maazel are probably the most familiar to collectors.(Szell’s incomparable 1957 accounts of two of the three works on this disc are still available on SACD Strauss: Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklärung - Szell ).
In his essay, ‘Orchestral Mastery and Art’, Welser-Möst writes “...these scores can be over interpreted and played simply for orchestral brilliance. But that, I have learned, misses the point and lessens the musical impact.” Though his performances of each of the works on this SACD are swift, the unforced virtuosity of the Cleveland players make the conductor’s tempi seem perfect.
The rarity in this programme is Strauss’s early tone poem ‘Macbeth’ – a much underrated piece in my opinion. In his essay Welser-Möst tells us that he considers it to be a more challenging work than the others and it took more time than usual with his orchestra in rehearsal for him to discover ‘the underlying truths in this score’. Surprisingly it was in October 2021 that it received its first performance in Cleveland. While I marginally prefer Marek Janowski’s more expansive account from Pittsburgh, Welser-Möst’s turbulent and passionate performance does not disappoint. ‘Don Juan’, that follows is especially thrilling in this athletic but notably sensitive reading with alluring solo playing in the slower episodes while elsewhere it possesses all the panache one could ask for. ‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche’ is also delivered with wit and drama in equal measure and its various episodes are brilliantly characterised, even matching the Szell version referred to above.
The packaging of the disc is exceptionally luxurious, if a little eccentric. The SACD is clipped inside a 19cm square book whose surface is very tactile – almost like suede – but is awkward to remove. The forty page book includes essays on Strauss, and one for each of the tone poems featured. All are profusely illustrated with full colour photographs and even excerpts from the Nikolaus Lenau poem that inspired Strauss to write his ‘Don Juan’ are given in German and English.
The three tone poems were recorded live at 24bit / 96kHz in October 2021 at the Mandel Concert Hall, Severance Music Centre in Cleveland. Like all these Cleveland own-label releases this is a stereo hybrid, not multi-channel disc, but the sound is well engineered and has considerable presence as well as warmth. It is also worth noting that a unique code is provided enabling one to download a personal set of high resolution audio files (flac) of the music. All audience noises and applause has thankfully been excised. One’s only regret is that with a playing time of just under 46 minutes it was not possible to include another Strauss work – ‘Tod und Verklärung’ being the obvious choice.
Altogether this is a most recommendable addition to the Cleveland Orchestra’s already impressive discography.
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