Richard Strauss: Don Juan – Four Last Songs – Also sprach Zarathustra

LABELS: ABC Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Richard Strauss: Don Juan – Four Last Songs – Also sprach Zarathustra
WORKS: Don Juan; Four Last Songs; Also sprach Zarathustra
PERFORMER: Erin Wall (soprano); Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis


Sir Andrew Davis, as a conductor, has always been something of an enigma to me. Certainly he’s a dependable steersman through late Romantic scores especially. But just as you’re ready to slap ‘careful’ on his efforts, out comes something extraordinary. As here, where after a dutiful Don Juan and a middle-of-the-road Four Last Songs comes one of the finest of Also sprach Zarathustras on disc. A year separates its live performance from the first two works, and slightly different production teams may explain why the swimmy sound of the Melbourne Arts Centre hall worried me less in this, the biggest and most expansive of the works programmed here.

This Zarathustra reminds us that not only was the work an incredible experiment for its time – 17-part strings and 12-tone fugue included – but that there’s capacity to disturb as well as bewitch. The opening, after an over-close contrabassoon doubling organ pedal makes a rather generator-ish noise, is heroic, not brash; the biggest flights truly billow and the Superman’s tricky dance (read Viennese waltz) song has real joy, with pop-out glissandos from violins supporting the fine leader, Dale Barltrop.


There are signs that soprano Erin Wall could, in time, be exactly right for the Four Last Songs. The voice, though already with a slightly worrying vibrato, changes from girlish to womanly in some lines of the final song, and she graces ‘September’ with some classy phrasing. It’s not quite enough as yet. Incidentally, I love the cover image, of Eliot Gruner’s Man and Mountains from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. David Nice