Strauss, R.: Don Quixote (CD review)

Also, works for cello. Ophelie Gaillard, cello; Julien Masmondet, Czech National Symphony Orchestra. Aparte Music AP174.

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 ├╝ber 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.

Ophelie Gaillard
The reason I can't be more enthusiastic about the soloist or interpretation is that it never struck me as being as colorful as it could be. Certainly, Ms. Gaillard's playing is technically beyond reproach, as is the violin work by Alexandra Conunova and the expertise of the Czech orchestra. But the performance itself seems rather reticent. I don't hear much of the old Don's eccentricities, and his adventures seem more than a little mundane rather than sad, humorous, peculiar, stimulating, pathetic, satiric, biting, or inspiring. In other words, I wasn't sure just how Ms. Gaillard and company wanted to represent their Quixote.

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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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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.

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For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine 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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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