Quixote. You remember him: the guy with the impossible dream.
Long before the stage musical and film Man of La Mancha, Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) created Don Quixote, the famous elderly gentleman who fancied himself a knight of high ideals, and his sidekick Sancho Panza. Then came German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) with his tone poem describing some of Quixote's adventures. Strauss composed the piece in 1896, just a couple of years after Also Sprach Zarathustra and while he was making a name for himself with his highly descriptive, impressionistic musical sketches.
Strauss's Don Quixote is a work for cello, viola, and orchestra. He subtitled it "Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters" ("Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character") and based the music on episodes from Cervantes's novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. Strauss wrote the score in the form of a theme and variations, with a solo cello depicting Don Quixote, and a solo viola, among other instruments, portraying his squire Sancho Panza. Of the ten variations within the piece, perhaps the most famous is the first one, the Don's "Adventures at the Windmill." The second variation, too, is quite evocative, a section in which Quixote encounters a herd of sheep and sees them as an approaching army. Here, Strauss uses a flutter-tonguing in the brass to represent the bleating of the sheep. It's all quite colorful and fun.
Of course, the question with any new recording of a well-known and oft-recorded piece of music is how well it compares to older, favored performances. For me, some old favorites would include Herbert von Karajan's lush, ripe presentation with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI); Rudolf Kempe's leaner, tauter interpretation with Paul Tortelier and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI); Fritz Reiner's more energetic reading with Antonio Janigro and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA); and Andre Previn's better recorded but more straightforward account with Franz Bartolomey the Vienna Philharmonic (Telarc). The answer to whether this new Aparte recording with Maestro Julien Masmondet, Ms. Ophelie Gaillard, and the Czech National Symphony is any better than the rest is a definite sort of, or maybe, or maybe not.
I'm sure Strauss intended his musical depiction of the addled old Don to offer some particular point of view on him without actually specifying that point of view, so the choices of approach are boundless. Nevertheless, under the direction of Masmondet and playing of Gaillard, the music simply appears beautiful and well performed, with a little less in the way of secondary responses than one might expect.
Regardless, there's a lot to be said for the beauty of Ms. Gaillard's playing, and the performance makes a charming listening experience. She is especially effectual in the softer, more introspective, more melancholy moments of the score, and one can hardly complain about the serenity of some sections.
Coupled with the main tone poem we find three additional Strauss pieces for cello: the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 6, with Vassilis Varvaresos, piano; the Romance for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 13; and "Morgan," the final section of Four Songs, Op. 27, arranged for cello, piano, and soprano, with Beatrice Uria Monzon, soprano. Because Strauss probably didn't mean for the listener to ascribe too much literal meaning to these pieces, I found them more effective as pure music.
Artistic Director Nicolas Bartholomee and engineers Nicolas Bartholomee, Maximilien Ciup, and Clement Rousset in conjunction with Little Tribeca recorded the music at the studio of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Prague in 2017 and in Paris, January 2018. The sound they obtained is as good as almost anything I've heard for a while. The solo cello is fairly well balanced with the orchestra; the stereo spread is wide; the highs are sparkling; the dynamic range is strong without being overwhelming, and the impact is good. What's more, the clarity and detailing are very fine, indeed.
My only minor caveats with the sound are that it's a tad closer than I usually like; it doesn't provide a lot of depth, front-to-back perspective; and there is some spotlighting of instruments, with the cello and violin in particular seeming to move closer to the audience at times and then recede into the distance. Fortunately, these issues are relatively small and should not distract most listeners from enjoying the sonics.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: