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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa