Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20 / Don Quixote, Op. 35
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André Previn is a considerate conductor. He does not impose himself on Strauss, nor does he get in the way of the Vienna Philharmonic. Just as well, for no orchestra knows Strauss's music better than they. Unfortunately, neither of the accounts on the Telarc disc ranks as a first choice. While the playing is solid throughout Don Juan--except for the curdled top note in the climactic statement of the big horn tune--there is not enough tension in Previn's reading to generate sustained excitement. The conductor tends to let things sag in the lyrical pages and offers a genial but disengaged view of the score's more passionate moments. The soloist in Don Quixote is the VPO's own Franz Bartolomey, and it is he who seems to be leading the performance. Previn again takes a back seat, not so much shaping as assisting in a reading in which the Viennese are the real stars. Not surprisingly, their playing is impressive in its brilliance and tonal refinement, but that alone is not enough to compensate for a rather ordinary realization of the solo part. As fine a musician as Bartolomey is, one misses a real personality here. --Ted Libbey
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Back in the mid-1990's, when I was first building my classical music collection, my 'bible' and chief reference was Gramophone's 1993 "The Good CD Guide", and my dog-eared copy of this edition still resides on my desktop today where I refer back to it from time to time.
And so, at that time - 1993 - while there were many other recordings of both Don Juan, and Don Quixote, available and with strong recommendations, Gramophone guided me to purchase this recording, stating (among other things) that "Control is the keynote here, a certain nobility and dignity, with the Vienna strings lending their own inimitable brand of sweetness and vibrancy to the love music", and going on to say that "Previn and Telarc respect the composer's original intentions and use the principals of the orchestra who are quite clearly balanced within the orchestra. It's a patient and considered reading full of warmth and humanity that does not yield all its treasures on first hearing...".
Given that recommendation at that time, I added this recording to my collection. And I've enjoyed it since then, without reservation. But today, with Gramophone's 1993 recommendation perhaps seeming to be out-of-date, what do I think of this recording?
There are two compositions on this CD, first Don Juan, Op. 20 at just over eighteen minutes in duration, followed by Don Quixote, Op. 35, a work of real substance and lasting over forty-one minutes altogether. Both were recorded in 1990, not so long ago after all, in Vienna (studio recordings, not live performances).
Let's discuss Don Quixote first. This is a magnificent performance and recording. The sound is crystal clear, the orchestral performance - this is the Vienna Philharmonic, after all - is lush and extravagant. I don't know what else you can ask for in a performance of Don Quixote. But to be fair, here are some of the current recommendations, referring to my more recent guides and taking guidance from them. I note, with some surprise, that these performances all pre-date the recording on this Telarc disc (1990):
- Herbert von Karajan, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with Mstislav Rostropovich - Given a top recommendation in the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2008, this performance of Don Quixote is coupled with Ein heldenleben and Symphonia domestica, recorded in the early '70's and remastered to provide improved sound quality, on 2 CDs
- Herbert von Karajan, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with Mstislav Rostropovich - as above but on a single CD, and coupled with the Schumann Cello Concerto.
- Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Antonio Janigro - recordings from 1959 (Don Quixote) and 1954 (Don Juan) but continuing to receive top recommendations even today, with Penguin giving it top billing for the same coupling as on this Telarc disc (Don Juan and Don Quixote together on one CD). This is a disc I haven't yet heard myself, but after going through the research in writing this review, I've decided to order this performance and will have it soon and see how it sounds.
Next, Don Juan. Again, the performance on this recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic in full song. The Gramophone review in 1993 pointed out that this is a recording where control is more apparent, compared to other performances where the passion and fire may have been more unleashed. To my ears, this is a terrific performance, but for the sake of comparison, there are others worth auditioning:
- George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra - coupled with performances of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel, performed by Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. Also available as George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra with a different coupling, Till Eulenspiegel and Death and Transfiguration. Another example of classic (1957/1960) recordings, still fully competitive with the latest recordings and performances.
- Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra - coupled with Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64. I have this recording myself, and it is very fine although taken at a faster pace and with perhaps less detail than the Previn recording (recorded in 1988).
My conclusion is that there are many worthy recordings of both works available on CD today. This particular disc, coupling together both Don Juan, and Don Quixote, is fully worth of consideration among any of the other choices that might be offered. Altogether, the performances run to about an hour almost exactly; perhaps a bit shorter than a fully-packed disc might contain today, but still very sufficient. And most importantly, these are terrific performances, and the recorded sound quality is excellent, with performances more recent than many of the other alternatives listed earlier. The personal choice for any collector may come down to the coupling that is desired - but if interested in these two on one disc, in my opinion this is a fine choice indeed.