I came to Luisi's Strauss cycle with the Staatskapelle Dresden through hearing their Alpensinfonie recording on the radio. My subsequent purchase of that disc - and extensive comparative listening - confirmed my first impression that his Alpensinfonie is one the very finest ever put to disc: gloriously played, directed with a clear sense of purpose and grasp of the journey to come, and all of it captured in absolutely resplendent sound by Sony. His subsequent, excellent Heldenleben and Metamorphosen kept that initial promise.
This disc, on the other hand was somewhat of a letdown, though Luisi is only partly to blame. A couple of issues speak against recommending this disc. First is the steep price for an inadequately filled out 2CD set that leaves a lot of empty space on the second disc. Second is the choice of Aus Italien as filler material. With the best of good will towards Richard Strauss it is hard to shake the impression that this is the weakest of his tone poems. I have yet to hear a performance that suggests otherwise. Even when it is as gloriously played, as it is here by Luisi and the Dresdners, Aus Italien sounds static. Strauss still was best when he either had a compelling hero he could characterize, or when he had an actual narrative to tell. Aus Italien remains an Italianate pastiche of tourist impressions, little better as music than a postcard is as photography. That said, if you do love that piece, this is easily one of the finest performances on disc, with the Dresdners eclipsing their earlier selves with Kempe.
Don Juan, like everything on this disc, is beautifully played. But perhaps almost too beautifully. As a concept, if you think of Don Juan as a seducer first and foremost, this perhaps has some interpretive merit. But the lack of differentiation wears a little bit in the long run. By the end you are wondering how such a likeable character would deserve going to hell. In short, while sensitively played and meticulously detailed, this performance leaves at least me longing for some contrast between seduction and the heroic impetuousness that e.g. Reiner, Kempe or Barenboim so nicely capture in the faster bits of this work.
The big piece of red meat on this two disc set is Don Quixote, and my impression of this recording is the same as my impression of the live performance I heard with these same forces during their recent US tour. While Luisi and the orchestra deliver a glowing, detailed and wonderfully characterized performance (viola and tuba solos are especially commendable), Jan Vogler is neither here nor there. He is to enamored with his own lyricism to imbue his title character with any real distinction. His Don Quixote remains firmly in his study on his estate, contemplating meditatively, perhaps in his dreams, one or another theoretical sully against imaginary enemies, but he never actually sets out to do it. The sad thing is that he not only pales in comparison to the formidable competition of the likes of Jacqueline du Pré or Pierre Fournier, but also compared to the other principals in the Staatskapelle Dresden, whose charcaterizations of their secondary figures have so much more life than his Don.
So in short, at full price for two discs, this set cannot be recommended on account of a 30% empty second disc, a weak cello soloist in the Don Quixote and a somewhat undifferentiated Don Juan. If Aus Italien is what you cherish, however, you'll have trouble finding a finer performance of it than this one, if the price isn't to steep for that alone.