Richard Strauss always maintained that he needed a programme to work to. And he chose the richest imaginable source in the Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes’s fantastic tale of delusion and madness – Don Quixote.
What’s the story of Don Quixote?
Here, as the delusional knight (Don Quixote) and his ever-faithful squire (Sancho Panza) embark on strange quests – which involve windmills that are transformed into giants, or harmless sheep metamorphosed into invading foreign armies – any sense of reality is turned completely on its head. Strauss, the doyen of musical storytellers, really lets his inspiration run wild. Not one burdened with anything approaching modesty, he once claimed he could describe the taste of lager in music and, listening to Don Quixote, his 1897 ‘Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character’, one feels that this is a boast which can be taken seriously. The character of Don Quixote is portrayed by solo cello, and the long-suffering Sancho Panza by viola, tuba and bass clarinet.
The best recording of Don Quixote
Paul Tortelier (cello) Giusto Cappone (viola), Berlin Philharmonic/Rudolf Kempe (1958)
Few cellists identify more fully with the fragile mentality of Cervantes’s knight than Paul Tortelier. He had played Don Quixote under Strauss, and recorded it three times. This recording is his second and finest. Although he’s fully engaged with the score’s bravura moments, it’s the more introspective passages which benefit most from Tortelier’s portrayal. And so, the Epilogue is no tragic death scene but a dignified ‘bowing out’. Fully restored to sanity, our aged hero’s dying soliloquy is played simply and tenderly, with no hint of bathos.
Elsewhere, Tortelier is quite capable of letting his hair down, whether tilting at windmills, ‘rescuing’ maidens in distress or harassing harmless monks. He’s also a great team player – the cello/viola dialogues with the excellent Sancho Panza of Giusto Cappone are a joy. Holding the reins is that most urbane of great conductors, Rudolf Kempe who, as one-time principal oboist with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, had also played Strauss under Strauss. Admirably light-of-foot, Kempe brings out the humanity and wit of Strauss’s score more fully than most. In this classic 1958 recording, the balance is natural, and the warm, spacious sound quality a superb example of early stereo.
We named the Berlin Philharmonic one of the best orchestras in the world
More great recordings of Strauss’s Don Quixote
Pierre Fournier (cello), Giusto Cappone (viola); Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan (1968)
Were cellist Pierre Fournier’s superb Sony account with George Szell currently available its praises would be sung here. However, in its absence, this 1968 partnership with Karajan is much more than a stopgap. Fournier is on superb form; his playing is often described as ‘aristocratic’ but, like his compatriot Tortelier, he can be wonderfully tender, as he is here with violist Giusto Cappone, again the perfect foil as Sancho. As for Karajan, he is rarely anything other than aristocratic; but, at
this stage in his career, his Strauss performances also exhibit a rare warmth and humanity. This is Karajan and the
Berlin Philharmonic at their most compelling, while Deutsche Grammophon’s sound quality is characteristic of its time – wide, with a satisfying aural glow.
Jan Vogler (cello) Sebastian Herberg (viola); Dresden Staatskapelle/ Fabio Luisi (2010)
If your taste is for rich, velvety orchestral sound, this disc provides an opulent alternative to the leaner, but no less impressive, variety supplied by conductor George Szell (who we named one of the greatest conductors ever) and his engineers. Prior to Fabio Luisi’s falling-out with the Dresden Staatskapelle, he was hoping to emulate his great predecessor, Rudolf Kempe, with a complete recorded survey of Strauss’s orchestral works. That won’t happen now. Never mind, what has been preserved is outstanding, including this warm and generous performance, played by an orchestra that is uniquely steeped in Straussian tradition. Cellist Jan Vogler and violist Sebastian Herberg are excellent as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, rather forwardly balanced, but not disastrously so.
Antonio Janigro (cello) Milton Preves (viola); Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (1959)
Compared to cellists Mstislav Rostropovich or Pierre Fournier, Antonio Janigro is a relatively undemonstrative Don Quixote. However, his partnership with violist Milton Preves’s Sancho is perfectly tempered to create the concertante-style of performance favoured by Strauss. Conductor Fritz Reiner, one time colleague and friend of the composer, is the musical magician here with the picturesque elements served up more graphically than anywhere else on disc.
His Chicago sheep are an alarmingly sinister bunch and the wind machine in the ‘flying horse’ sequence one of the windiest around. Overall, Kempe is undoubtedly a wittier, more subtle interpreter, but for spills
and thrills, Reiner sweeps the board.
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko, et al
The lunatic, the lover and the joker are of imagination all infinite in these supremely vivid interpretations. When the players are alert to all expressive possibilities, Don Quixote emerges as one of the richest orchestral scores ever composed: variations, concerto and symphonic poem rolled into one, perfectly structured and contrasted, the ultimate ‘opera for orchestra’.
And one to avoid……
Much as I love and admire the artistry of Mstislav Rostropovich, his partnership with Karajan is a perplexing mismatch. We get, in effect, two contradictory narratives. Rostropovich is his usual impassioned self, Karajan strangely aloof – by contrast, the chemistry between Karajan and Pierre Fournier serves the music better. Despite superb sound and orchestral playing, it’s a recording that fails to live up to its tantalising promise.
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