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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Strauss Relief: Five Great Recordings

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss is in the news this week, with the City Opera reviving Intermezzo, the composer's 1924 opera based loosely on his own life. It's about a conductor and his troubles with his quarrelsome wife. Strauss wrote the libretto himself.

Strauss was a brilliant orchestrator, a master of the tone poem and one of the most important German opera composers of the early 20th century. Here's a look at five of the best representations of Strauss' output on disc. And I picked these 'cos they're my five favorite Strauss compositions.

Also Sprach Zarathustra
The 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey made the three-note opening of Zarathustra one of the most recognizable moments in music. There's only one definitive recording, made in 1959, by Herbert von Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic. This is the one that was in the movie. Accept no substitutes. It is bundled with good performances of three other works: Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan, and the Dance of the Seven Veils from the opera Salome.

Ein Alpensinfonie
Strauss' other Nietzche-inspired tone poem is an account of a 22-movement journey up and Alp, and then down as the hikers are chased by a raging thunderstorm and a 150-piece orchestra. There are a number of recordings, but this 2001 offering by the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann has more depth of detail and nuance than the others.

Der Rosenkavalier
Strauss' bourgeois comedy of manners has many find representations on disc. The best modern recording features the Dresden Staatskapelle under the baton of Bernard Haitink. This EMI set preserves Anne Sofie von Otter's great interpretation of Octavian. Kiri Te Kanawa is a tremendous presence as the Marschallin, and Kurt Rydl is a marvelously funny Baron Ochs. The recording is in fine stereo, and is completely uncut.

Die Frau Ohne Schatten
Sir Georg Solti's last major opera recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. This Frau was released at the end of an era, when superstar conductors got high-end orchestras and all-star casts together to record the greatest lesser-known works of the catalogue.

Here, the complex score of Frau is presented uncut and in luminous sound. There is no better way to learn Strauss' most difficult and uplifting opera than this fine three-disc set, which reveals the layers of orchestration and vocal writing in exquisite detail.

Ariadne auf Naxos
This Deutsche Grammophon recording was the last opera recording made by Italian maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli. Although it remained in limbo for a number of years following a contract dispute, the maestro's untimely death (in the pit while conducting Aida in Berlin) paved the way for its posthumous release. He was blessed with the Dresden Staatskapelle, an orchestra which truly loves Strauss. The cast features Deborah Voigt in the title role and the crystalline Natalie Dessay in the hellishly difficult role of Zerbinetta.

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