Strauss: Don Juan (CD review)

Also, Songs; Metamorphosen. Joan Rodgers, soprano; Jan Latham-Koenig, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg. Avie AV2172.

The works on this 2011 Avie release span almost the whole of Richard Strauss's lifetime (1864-1949). The album begins with the tone poem Don Juan from 1889, a piece that pretty much put Strauss's name on the map; it continues through two sets of early lieder; and it finishes up with the tone poem Metamorphosen from 1945, written just a few years before his death. The album makes for an interesting and enlightening listen.

Maestro Jan Latham-Koenig leads the French-based Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra (he was the orchestra's Music Director from 1997-2003) in all three sections of the program, his work with Don Juan setting the tone for the rest of the disc. Don Juan is, of course, a swashbuckling piece of music that probably influenced any number of later film composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold and even John Williams. Appropriately, Latham-Koenig plays up the theatrics for maximum effect, without abandoning the more-intimate moments of the score. It's quite impressive and generates a good deal of excitement.

Soprano Joan Rodgers, accompanied by Latham-Koenig on piano, performs eight Strauss songs--four from his Op. 10 ("The Saffron Crocus," "All Soul's Day," "Georgine," "Concealed") and four from Op. 24 ("Meeting," "Red Roses," "The Rose Awoken," "Tomorrow!"). They are lovely, the earlier ones more overtly wistful and emotive than the later ones, which tend to lean more to Strauss's operatic tastes. In any case, Ms. Rodgers displays a strong and expressive voice.

Strauss wrote Metamorphosen as one of his last major works and composed it for twenty-three solo strings. He took as his inspiration the poems and writings of the first-century Roman poet Ovid and the nineteenth-century German poet Johann Goethe. Music critic Michael Kennedy called it "a masterpiece of romanticism in its death epilogue for an old era." Certainly, there is a good deal of sadness, mournfulness, in the piece; we have to remember Strauss penned it at the end of the Second World War, not a happy time even for the victors. Despite its melancholy, which the conductor and orchestra render without much sentimentality, the work includes many reflections of the composer's early orchestral output. It was a sweet way for Strauss to go out, and it makes a suitable and memorable way to conclude the disc's program.

Don Juan and Metamorphosen derive from recordings made in 2001 in the Salle Erasme du Palais de la Musique et des Congres de Strasbourg. The songs come from 2008 at Henry Wood Hall, London, England. Both recording venues work well with the material.

Ultimate midrange transparency is perhaps a touch lacking in the orchestral selections, with the treble a bit soft and the bass a bit light. Still, it's a fairly natural sound overall, with an admirable smoothness about it. The songs project a clean, clear voice and accompaniment and are a pleasure on the ear.


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