Strauss: Don Juan; Tod und Verklärung; Till Eulenspiegel; Träumerei am Kamin. Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg conducted by Marc Albrecht. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, 10, 17-21. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Brahms: Violin Concerto; Schumann: Violin Concerto. Ilya Kaler, violin; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.
Say what you will about Romantic music’s excesses – it still, a century after the ostensible end of its era, has power and emotional sweep that connect with audiences directly, in a way that the generally more intellectual post-Romantics rarely do. Marc Albrecht gets that emotional connection just right in an outstanding SACD of mostly familiar music by Richard Strauss. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg may not be quite in the first tier of world (or even European) orchestras, but it plays superbly for Albrecht, who has clearly thought through the Strauss tone poems and knows just how he wants them paced, with emphasis placed just so within the instrumental fabric. Albrecht extracts details from Strauss where other conductors are all too often content to let the composer’s huge orchestra overwhelm the audience with the sheer volume of its sound. Thus, the very end of Don Juan, which dies away as the roué’s life ebbs, is every bit as effective (and affecting) as the more upbeat, powerful, striding themes earlier in the piece. Till Eulenspiegel remains a romp but gains a sly undercurrent of sarcasm. And Tod und Verklärung, one of the composer’s early self-referential works (the dying man, an artist, completes his grand vision only after death), really is transformative here, with the “recollection” sections in stark and brilliant contrast to those of the work’s hero’s inevitable succumbing to his mortality. The least-known piece on the recording, the interlude Träumerei am Kamin (“Dreaming by the Fireside”) from the opera Intermezzo, is more self-referential Strauss, drawn as it is from a work that is a domestic comedy-drama. Brief and lovely, it ends the SACD with warmth and makes an unusual and effective encore.
Also highly effective, and also boasting excellent PentaTone SACD sound, is the final entry in Marek Janowski’s Brahms cycle with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Brahms’ Fourth is the least played of his symphonies and in many ways the mightiest – but those are ways of the intellect rather than ones of the emotions, as in the first three symphonies. In the wrong hands, the Fourth can sound dry, especially in its final chaconne, whose theme Brahms adapted from Bach's cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich. With flavors of Beethoven as well as the Baroque, but a thoroughly Brahmsian use of the orchestra, this is a difficult symphony to conduct effectively; but Janowski proves more than up to the task, and the orchestra (including the brass, which is crucial) gives him plenty of warmth and accuracy. The SACD also contains eight of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances – Nos. 1, 3 and 10 orchestrated by the composer and Nos. 17-21 by Dvořák. Here too the orchestra and conductor are very well attuned to each other, and if the performances break no new ground (which is a difficult thing to do with these miniatures), they are robust, heartfelt and emotionally satisfying.
Brahms’ Violin Concerto is an emotional success, too, in the excellent new Naxos recording featuring violinist Ilya Kaler. Kaler is an exceptionally skilled player, never seeming to reach for or barely manage passages that can (and do) trip up other performers; in this respect, in some ways, Kaler’s playing is reminiscent of that of Jascha Heifetz. But Kaler also brings warmth to his performances – the huge first movement of the Brahms concerto simply grows and grows, becoming increasingly intense, while the Adagio offers respite while at the same time offering beauty and intimacy. Kaler cuts loose in the finale, handling the dance rhythms with aplomb and providing the work with a rousing conclusion. Pietari Inkinen’s conducting of the Bournemouth Symphony is mostly workmanlike: Inkinen is clearly content to have the orchestra take a back seat to Kaler, supporting him without ever seeming to come into competition. The approach works, although a greater sense of intensity would have made it work better. Orchestra and soloist do in fact play more effectively off each other in Schumann’s Violin Concerto, a Romantic work as underplayed as the Brahms is overplayed. Schumann’s concerto is poetic rather than supremely virtuosic (although the finale does have its moments); this may explain why it has relatively few advocates among first-rate violinists. But Kaler shows what a top-notch player can do with this music: he does not overwhelm it or blow it out of proportion, nor does he try to put it on the same plane as the later Brahms concerto. Instead, he lets the work unfold naturally, accepting its beauties as well as its limitations, putting his skill at the service of the music rather than trying to inflate it – with the result that the concerto ends up sounding as if other violinists underrate or simply do not fully understand it. Not a great concerto, perhaps, but in Kaler’s interpretation, the Schumann is a far worthier one than it has sometimes been thought to be.