The tone-poems of Richard Strauss have, with a couple of exceptions, been staples of the orchestral repertoire more or less since the ink from the composer's pen had dried. While Don Juan was the first to achieve universal success – its opening, for Carl Dalhaus, symbolised 'the break-away spirit of the 1890s' – Strauss's earlier Aus Italien receives only rare outings.
It is this 'musical Baedeker', though, that forms the bulk of the disc from Bertrand de Billy and his Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and it remains a fascinating if flawed work, one which Strauss himself described as the connecting link between and the old and new methods. While Don Juan is confidently designated a 'Tondichtung', Aus Italien – referred to all through this release's inelegantly translated booklet as From Italy – still has its formal origins in the symphony; four movements each portray a scene from Strauss's first Italian trip in 1886. It's an enjoyable work but one that has been left out of the Strauss cycles by all but the most completist interpreters: Kempe and Zinman's surveys from the 70s and early years of this decade respectively, immediately come to mind. For me, though, De Billy's performance dislodges neither of them, nor Muti's classy effort with the Berlin Philharmonic on Philips from the early 90s.
There is something about Oehms's engineering that is rather too smooth and generalised so that, although detailed, the music's edges are softened. This means that the reading of Don Juan, which opens the disc, left me rather cold. It lacks nothing for tenderness in the slower episodes, and displays some distinguished work from the RSO Wien's soloists, but this is not a Don whose blood pulses with all the impetuosity one would wish. The horns really grab hold of the final reappearance of his main theme, but too much that precedes it simply sounds a little polite – a mixed result of De Billy's reading and the slightly emasculating effect of the engineering.
Aus Italien is obviously a greater rarity on disc and this is, to my knowledge, the only version on SACD. De Billy's performance is very well prepared and his orchestra play excellently but they are again more convincing in the slower, more thoughtful passages. This means that that there's a lot to enjoy in 'Auf der Campagna', with its highly atmospheric orchestration and evocative harmonies, probably the finest movement in the work. The performance does little to cover up the rather dreary 'In Roms Ruinen' second movement, however; 'a well-behaved symphonic movement based on Schumann's 'Rhenish' Symphony', as Norman Del Mar described it. The evocations of nature in 'Am Strande von Sorent' are beautifully done but the performance fails to bring Strauss's admittedly uninspired 'Neapolitanisches Volksleben' to life; if this symphonic treatment of 'Faniculì-Faniculà' is going to come across as anything but misguided, it needs a more of a no-holds-barred approach.
The contrast with De Billy's style and that of Marc Albrecht and his Orchestre Symphonique de Strasbourg could hardly be greater. And if nothing else, this Pentatone disc suggests that when Albrecht comes to conduct Der Fliegende Holländer at Covent Garden, it will not lack thrills. However, the thrills are at the expense of much in the way of subtlety and the orchestra itself often sounds unrefined next to the RSO Wien, captured in engineering that is below Pentatone's usually reference-quality standards.
For me, the reading of Don Juan is most successful and is often highly visceral in its impact, generating a fair amount of energy. Strangely, though, some of the love scenes are on the slow side but are still characterised by a certain impatience, and several other moments of repose are rushed through, with phrases snatched or poorly placed.
It's unfortunate, too, that this same impatience and impetuosity seems to have seeped into Albrecht's performance of Tod und Verklärung, probably the least successful reading on the disc. He fails to create the atmosphere that, whatever one's view on the work's cod metaphysics, are essential for it convince on a narrative as well as musical level. His Allegro molto agitato sounds sluggish initially but he then ploughs through the faster passages and gives the main climax short shrift, ignoring Strauss's all important 'sehr breit' (very broadly) marking.
Similarly, the performance of Till Eulenspiegel is hard-driven and, as a result, humourless. There are some nice details – the brass are always spot-on with their accents, for example – but there will be varying reactions to the principal horn's tremulous tone and the often uninspired work from the other soloists. The whole thing simply lacks charm and doesn't seem to show the Strasbourg players at their best. It's a shame that the feeling of tenderness and expansiveness evoked in the final work on the disc, the brief instrumental interlude from Intermezzo, 'Träumerei am Kamin', is too often lacking elsewhere.
Incidentally, the Pentatone disc was recorded at two separate sessions in 2007, six months apart, and Tod und Verklärung and Till Eulenspiegel suffer from a certain amount of background noise.
By Hugo Shirley