Richard Strauss: Don Quixote; Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Great Strauss playing on CD is emerging from less obvious places than Berlin, Amsterdam and Vienna: after a Brazilian Alpine Symphony (reviewed March 2013) comes this electrifying duo of tone poems from Cologne. On this evidence, the great harbinger of modernism among Strauss’s tone poems of the 1890s is not Also Sprach Zarathustra, the dazzler which turned Bartók back to composing full-time, but its successor, the ‘fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character’, Don Quixote.
Based on Cervantes’s novel, Strauss’s homage is a companion piece to the much more plumply-upholstered Ein Heldenleben. Just as the heroism of that mock epic self-portrait should be taken tongue in cheek, the method-in-the-madness of the old Spaniard who trots out on his emaciated nag Rosinante, with prattling peasant Sancho Panza on a donkey as his ‘squire’, deserves a certain seriousness, tragicomedy perhaps.
Markus Stenz gets the proportions exactly right. He plunges us into the delirium of the melancholy hero’s addled brain with a clarity pointing forward to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. The recording is supremely natural and the wind and brass speak at a realistic distance. Brisk but unrushed narrative contrasts with the hyper-lush Herbert von Karajan/Mstislav Rostropovich interpretation (EMI); both views are valid, but Stenz’s, with lean but brilliantly well profiled strings, is closer to Strauss’s intentions.
Strauss envisaged the soul of Quixote as a role for an orchestra’s principal cellist. That was successfully observed by the Zurich Tonhalle’s Thomas Grossenbacher on a disc conducted by David Zinman which was my library choice some years ago on Radio 3’s Record Review. Stenz has a star soloist, but one used to making chamber music. Adventurous Alban Gerhardt is vivid as Quixote takes several tumbles, piercing in the central night vigil and poignant on the deathbed of the finally sane protagonist, dying with the most eerie of downward slides. The peerless viola player Lawrence Power is luxury casting as an equally human Sancho Panza. No stars need be drafted in for one of the best Till Eulenspiegels on disc: the Gürzenich Orchestra’s horn and D clarinet bring two sides of the medieval wag who challenges authority to peerless life. Stenz adds crescendo snarls to the long brass chords of the judges who send our hero to the gallows. I think it works, as does every impeccably gauged detail in
an irrepressible performance.