The Gürzenich Orchester Köln has singular claims on Richard Strauss's Don Quixote and Till Eulenspiegel; they premiered both works in the presence of the composer. Over a century on, under current Kapellmeister Markus Stenz's zesty direction, the orchestra's Straussian credentials remain strong. And with the composer's 150th anniversary on its way in 2014, we can only hope that recorded offerings will be as good as this one from Hyperion.
There's real swing to these performances, bringing much-needed bounce to the narratives. True to quixotic form, however, Don Quixote is emotionally rich, not least in the 'Dialogue between knight and servant'. Stenz is accorded two particularly fine participants in Alban Gerhardt and Lawrence Power. Their chamber-like interaction, fluent, mutually responsive, displays exact powers of communication.
The Gürzenich strings don't always live up to those high standards, with a tone that isn't quite as rich as you'd hope, but Stenz has a superb wind and brass team at hand, brilliantly exaggerating Strauss's pithy counterpoint. Throughout Stenz balances a cocktail of comedy and tragedy, contrasting the soloists' more improvisatory passages with the thrilling heft of fuller ensembles. The orchestral effects are given due colour, though the Barcarolle and the death of the Don are notably humane, making this so much more than a mere showcase.
But with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchester really run riot. Played with appropriately swinging abandon - as well as ferocity when Till is sentenced to death - Strauss's not-always-quite-so-merry pranks show one of the composer's favourite orchestras in the very best light.