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A Wonderful Introduction to Richard Strauss
on 20 March 2011
I must enthusiastically recommend this recording of 2 great Strauss masterpieces (4 Last Songs and Metamorphosen) and Tod und Verklarung, a work which does not seem quite on the same level (although I enjoyed listening to it immensely). Putting it in a nutshell, I thought the performances of 4 Last Songs and Tod und Verklarung were masterly, and made a huge impact on me; I was somewhat less taken by the performance of Metamorphosen, but I think the disc deserves 5 stars from an overall point of view. I found it quite a revelation as I am a comparative newcomer to the music of Strauss. Now for a bit more detail.
I have tried to assess the merits of the performances by comparing other recordings I have, but since these are limited in number I am in no position to suggest which is absolutely the best recording of any of these works.
Firstly, Four Last Songs: I previously was only familiar with the Jessye Norman/Masur recording, which I thought marvellous. However, I think it is surpassed by Janowitz and Karajan. Janowitz has a most beautiful, light-toned voice, and she performs these songs with great emotional range-from the withdrawn to the intense-which I found very effective. I am not quite so enthusiastic about Norman/Masur's performance now, which sometimes seems to have a somewhat cloying quality. I found some of Norman's high notes in the first two stanzas of the first song off-puttingly loud, the volume not being justified by the text.
Secondly, Tod und Verklarung: I thought this performance magnificent, and was particularly struck by the yearning, striving quality Karajan brings to the music leading up to the return of the Transfiguration theme and also thereafter, culminating in a truly cosmos-shattering climax (wonderfully handled by Karajan). The serenity at the end of the piece is superbly conveyed too. As regards the other performances: One is Furtwangler and Hamburg Philharmonic. This performance has loads of raw energy, but the sound quality is often poor, and the orchestral playing has plenty of rough edges (although I occasionally missed the roughness of the playing when listening to Karajan). The other is Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra. This performance seemed wooden in comparison with the other two, and was the one I least enjoyed (I enjoyed Karajan the most).
Thirdly, Metamorphosen: This is pretty difficult music to get into, and it has an obsessive quality which I found rather disturbing. I compared Karajan's performance with Furtwangler and the BPO, and Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic. I enjoyed the Rattle the most, which seemed to me a full-blooded, passionate interpretation. Some of Karajan's interpretion seemed (from an overall perspective) rather anaemic in comparison; the sound quality was also occasionally rather muddy. However, there is some particularly beautiful music towards the end of the piece (for me this music is the emotional centre of the piece), where Karajan's emotional restraint seems to fall away, with breathtaking effect. The Furtwangler performance is full of drama and passion, but rather tails away at the end (he rather skates over the passage I mention above). The sound quality of the Furtwangler is not too bad at all.
Overall, though this is a disc I will treasure, and which makes me want to explore the world of Richard Strauss further.