Friday, March 31, 2006
Richard Strauss: Don Juan
Friday January 12, 2001
Don Juan was the work that made the 25-year-old Richard Strauss a star when it was first performed in Weimar in 1889 - and with good reason. An epoch-making score, it redefined the parameters of musical potential. No composer had previously used orchestral forces with such flamboyant audacity, and the history of sonority would never be quite the same again.
In his picture of the famous womaniser, Strauss also placed a hitherto unimagined emphasis on erotic hedonism, which remains startling more than a century later. The result has always been a firm favourite with players and audiences alike, though Don Juan is much more than a virtuoso musical porn show, and the whole thing can come adrift if conductors fail to probe its deeper ambiguities. Strauss took as his source an unfinished play by the deranged poet Nikolaus Lenau, in which the Don is very much portrayed as the prototype of the Nietzschean figures to whom Strauss was later drawn - an amoral being "beyond good and evil" whose sexual exploits form a psychological defence against his own destructive nihilism. A sense of jittery, existential danger needs to be added to the glamorous sexiness of it all if the piece is to succeed.
Several of Strauss's own performances survive, of which the finest - measured in speed but relentless in intensity - is his 1944 radio broadcast with the Vienna Philharmonic (Preiser). A similar spaciousness, rather than superficial glitter, pervades Wilhelm Furtwängler's majestic 1954 version with the same orchestra (EMI). The usually great Bruno Walter was never quite at his best in Strauss's music and his 1952 version with the New York Philharmonic (Sony) finds him occasionally ill at ease. Leopold Stokowski, ever the wizard when it comes to orchestral flamboyance, generates tremendous, visceral excitement.
Among the next generation of interpreters we find versions by Karajan (DG), Solti (Decca), Boehm (DG) and Rudolf Kempe (EMI), all great, all radically different. Karajan's lushness contrasts sharply with Solti's nervous edginess. Boehm is all romantic radiance and warmth, while Kempe, with the Dresden Staatskapelle on glorious form, is deeply humane, portraying the Don very much as a man whose emotions, though transitory, are sincere.
More recently we have Neeme Jarvi controversially and brilliantly turning the Don into a Sadean brute as part of his Chandos Strauss cycle with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, very fierce with the Vienna Philharmonic yet again (DG); and Herbert Blomstedt and the San Francisco Symphony, almost matchless when it comes to exposing Strauss's gorgeous palette of orchestral colour (Decca - the sound is astonishing).
But there's one version that towers above the rest, namely the 1954 RCA recording with the Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner. The work has never sounded quite so electrifyingly raunchy or so dangerous as it does here, while the downbeat ending is shockingly, devastatingly sad. The playing is stupendous and the whole thing knocks you sideways. It ranks among the most stunning performances ever committed to disc - an absolutely unmissable achievement.
Key recording: Fritz Reiner (RCA)
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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