Great Strauss Scenes (CD review)

Christine Brewer, soprano; Eric Owens, bass-baritone. Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Telarc TEL-31755-02.

Richard Strauss, that is.

I love the orchestral music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), but I'm not a big fan of his operas, so I'm obviously not the best person to review a program made up largely of big chunks of the composer's vocal numbers. Nor am I a fan of excerpts albums, as this one is. I can tell you, however, that soprano Christine Brewer sings beautifully, as does bass-baritone Eric Owens, that the Atlanta Symphony play wonderfully, and that conductor Donald Runnicles offers everyone the finest support in the world. That said, I didn't care much for the album, which contains five selections, three of them vocal and two of them purely orchestral. Oddly, though, the disc includes nothing from Strauss's most-famous opera, Der Rosenkavalier. Oh, well....

Things begin with the "Recognition Scene" from Elektra (1908), a segment lasting a little over twenty minutes and featuring both Ms. Brewer and Mr. Owens. Ms. Brewer's voice soars, and she conveys much emotion in single notes. Owens pretty much just has to keep up, and Runnicles, an old pro at opera, accompanies them with a sure hand, the orchestra swelling in and out of the voices and throbbing sympathetically with them.

Next, we get the "Moonlight Interlude" from Capriccio (1941), about three minutes, and its title says it all, this orchestral pause a calm, tranquil respite.

Third, we have the "Imprisonment Scene" from Die Frau Ohne Schatten (1917), about ten minutes long, again with Ms. Brewer, and Owens in support. It is dramatic, to say the least, melodramatic in fact.  It is also a bore to me no matter who's singing it. Ms. Brewer, with Owens joining in later in the selection, does it whatever justice it deserves.

In the next-to-last position, we hear what is probably the most-popular piece of music on the disc, the wholly orchestral "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome (1905), lasting about nine minutes under Runnicles' direction. He injects it with appropriate life and fire, yet there is an abundance of exotic color as well. I enjoyed this selection most of all not only because it is engaging music but because it points up all the more how tedious Strauss's vocal material can be.

The program ends with the "Final Scene" from Salome, about sixteen minutes in length, and for soprano alone and orchestra. As with the excerpt from Die Frau Ohne Schatten, this conclusion is mightily dramatic, indeed histrionic. It seems as though in Strauss operas it's only the story that counts rather than the music, although here we detect hints of Zarathustra and the Alpine Symphony from the orchestra between loud, anguished outbursts of song.

Telarc recorded this 2010 release in February of 2009 in Atlanta Symphony Hall. The sound favors the singers, with the orchestra sometimes receding into the background. I suppose that is as it should be, but it gives the impression of the singers being well out in front of the accompaniment, which is a bit unusual in the concert hall. While the audio engineers do a good job capturing Owens's bass-baritone, there are occasions when Brewer's soprano voice gets a tad shrill. The engineers reproduce the orchestra itself in a relatively soft, warm, slightly distant acoustic, with, nevertheless, a wide dynamic range. There is not a lot of transparency involved, but one cannot avoid the celebrated Telarc bass drum.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa