Classical music releases -- Reviews of Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff

Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette, Les Nuits d'ete

Classical music releases

Everybody loves a war-horse, one of those old favorites that constitute the heart of the standard repertoire. These are the works that test the mettle of the best performers, that make or break reputations. A few of the most recent and noteworthy:

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Metamorphoses, Death and Transfiguration
Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle
Wagner once called the Dresden orchestra a ”wonder harp,” and, more than a century later, the band still sounds great. Under Blomstedt, their former music director, the Dresdeners deliver beautifully detailed performances of three of Strauss’ best tone poems. Particularly good is the grief-stricken Metamorphoses for 23 solo strings, which the composer wrote near the end of World War II, in mourning for the destruction of Munich and Dresden. With the Funeral March quotation from Beethoven’s ”Eroica” symphony hanging in the air at its conclusion, the work is the war’s most moving musical testimony, and Blomstedt more than does it justice. A

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Horacio Gutierrez, piano; David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
These two fire-breathing stallions get estimable readings by one of America’s most underrated performers. The Cuban-born Gutierrez, winner of the silver medal at the 1970 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, is a splendid pianist with good taste and technique to burn, yet he always remains firmly in the saddle. The hoary Tchaikovsky concerto is simultaneously poetic and stirring, while the Rachmaninoff is a fingers-ahoy display of virtuosity. You may hear more exciting readings, but none with so many other attendant virtues. B+

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol
Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Practically a ”light classic,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s thrice-told tale of the 1001 Arabian nights is so familiar that it’s easy to overlook its quality. This beloved ”suite symphonique” remains one of the best examples of late-19th-century musical tone painting, superbly calculated and brilliantly orchestrated. Mackerras may be a tad too sober to fully conjure up the exotic realm of Sultan Shahriar, his talkative sultana, and her stories of Sinbad the Sailor, but the London Symphony’s playing is finely appointed and the recording quality is excellent. B

Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette, Les Nuits d’ete
James Levine conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, with Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo; Philip Langridge, tenor; and James Morris, bass
Berlioz’s ”symphonie dramatique,” a slick gloss on Shakespeare, seems to be gaining in popularity these days, and why not? It’s brimming with good tunes, decked out in the French composer’s characteristically deft orchestration. The Metropolitan Opera’s Levine evinces a light touch as he steers the Berlin Philharmonic around Berlioz’s sharp curves and blind corners. Good, not great, singing; van Otter, one of Deutsche Grammophon’s bright young vocal hopes, is particularly miscast in the perfumed subtleties of the Les Nuits d’ete song cycle. B-

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4, Serenade for Strings
Andrew Litton conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Litton, a young New Yorker, has been making a name for himself in Britain as the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony, a highly regarded regional orchestra. But from the evidence of this disc, it’s hard to see why. Tchaikovsky’s passionate, slightly neurotic symphony is yanked, punched, pulled, and otherwise bullied. To make matters worse, the abuse is all done at an egregiously slow tempo that fairly defies you not to fidget and, finally, take flight even before the serenade. F

Berlioz: Romeo et Juliette, Les Nuits d'ete
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