Volume one of Chandos's three-volume series of the complete symphonic poems of Richard Strauss, all with the dependable but not-too-inspiring Neeme Jarvi conducting the Scottish National Orchestra, contains two of Strauss's earliest as well as his penultimate compositions in this genre.
It is the penultimate work, An Alpine Symphony (1915) that begins the set. Its hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck opening sounds promising and the sunrise is gloriously radiant. But it seems we can never escape the consequences of `gain-run' in recording technology: if quieter portions have their volume increased, and the loudest reduced (but still to have effect), then the middling registers are going to sound distant in comparison. Fair enough, but as chance would have it, I also possess the LP of this interpretation, and I have to say that in many respects the LP has a better sound than the remastered CD. The LP is deeper, with more echo and resonance. We can hear the orchestra has been recorded in a large hall, whilst on the CD the music sounds flatter and more staid.
So, much of the criticism of this CD recording is directed not at the conductor but at the producer, for what Jarvi may lack in flair, he more than makes up for in dignity. Listen, for example, to the clean and clear high brass as we move out from the thickets and onto the glacier. And the later storm scene is stupendously dramatic. Despite my criticism, I still give four stars for this five-star composition.
`Only' four stars for the 1889 work, `Death and Transfiguration', but Jarvi employs a marvellously subtle interpretation in the opening. The other early work is the 1888 `Don Juan'. Usually we respond to the brass fanfare and the flourish of the strings but we can clearly distinguish in the first few bars the woodwinds pulsing too.
The fourth work on this double-CD set is `A Hero's Life' (1898). Due attention is paid to the piece's dynamics and its many contrasts. Again, I have the original LP to contrast with the remastered CD, and one does have to question what the Chandos engineers thought they were doing when making the transfer to disc. The famed Chandos sound has been compromised somewhat into something more banal, there being a distinct lack of `presence'.
Still, if the sound-quality is not as perfect as desired - the less dynamic sections can sound flat and lacklustre - Jarvi's interpretation is nonetheless one of the best that I have heard. The portrayal of the hero's companion (i.e. Strauss's wife, Pauline) may be perhaps a little too slow, but Strauss was always indulgent with his loves anyway (as he was also in `Don Juan'). It was good to be able to clearly hear the pulses of timpani at the start of the final section.
The sleevenotes are written by Michael Kennedy.