R Strauss: Tone Poems, Vol. 1
This is a golden age for at least two of Germany’s radio orchestras. While Stuttgart has Stéphane Denève at its orchestra’s helm, Baden-Baden and Freiburg boast another Frenchman of equal passion and precision, François-Xavier Roth. If this is the start of a Strauss series, then Roth has chosen the two most potentially bombastic of the tone poems. No problem, though: the combination of his muscly, forward-moving approach, with not an ounce of fat on it, and perhaps the most stunning engineering accorded to the master orchestrator yet, mean that both the mock-epic composer hero of Ein Heldenleben and the dying man of Tod und Verklärung make their momentous journeys without sag or stress. The hero’s signing-in is as impressively balanced an introduction as any I’ve heard, and its glorious return once battle has been won moves with the lithest and fullest of movements towards the tapestry of remembered ‘peace works’ – among them, of course, a couple of themes from Tod und Verklärung.
Why not five stars, then? Well, I’d like a little more sensuousness from the South German strings in both love scenes, and the slightly reticent ‘hero’s companion’ of leader Christian Ostertag makes me wonder whether Ein Heldenleben might benefit from a star soloist, such as Neeme Järvi had with violinist James Ehnes for his Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty (on Chandos). The only major disappointment comes last, with an afterlife transfiguration lacking the necessary chiaroscuro. Otherwise, these performances pulse with ideal life.