Strauss: Don Juan, Aus Italien, Don Quixote

Herberg, Vogler; Staatskapelle Dresden/Luisi (Sony Classical SACD 8869 745542)

24 February 2010 3.5 stars

LuisiThe Staatskapelle Dresden has seen Music Directors come and go, sailing relatively unscathed through its centuries-long tradition. Fabio Luisi is the lastest casualty, storming out a month ago in the middle of preparations for a Ring Cycle at the Semperoper. The controversial figure of Christian Thielemann looms on the horizon; he is due to take over in 2012. One might forlornly hope that he might, too, eventually take over the reins of the distinguished Strauss cycle that Luisi had underway with Sony. It's given us a fine Heldenleben and Alpensinfonie already, and this latest (and presumably last) instalment similarly oozes quality.

The set consists of two discs, the first and finest containing Don Juan and Aus Italian. The second disc contains a re-release of an older recording of Don Quixote, starring the orchestra's former principal cello, Jan Vogler, and is slightly less convincing.

The booklet makes a great deal of Luisi's Italian roots, but he is by no means the first Italian to couple Don Juan with Aus Italien; Muti recorded the same works with the Berlin Philharmonic in the late eighties. Perhaps the nearest comparison, however, is that with Bertrand De Billy's recent coupling with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. It's now clear, in any case, that there are several versions of Strauss's early essay in the medium of symphonic poetry to choose from – Kempe's classic with the same orchestra as Luisi, and Zinman's Zurich account just to name a couple – but Luisi's is possibly the finest.

The four Italian vignettes that make up this 'Symphonic Fantasy' (it's a shame the booklet here mistranslates it as just 'Symphonic Poem') show a Strauss not quite willing to jettison the standard four movement layout of the symphony, but, although a fledgling work, there's plenty of attractive music. And, given the sheer beauty of the Dresdener's sound as recorded here, it has rarely sounded so good. I always struggle with the somewhat banal 'In Rom's Ruinen' second movement, but the atmospheric evocation of 'Auf der Campagna' is very convincingly captured here. The Dresden brass are uniquely warm while the strings are luxurious, while I've never heard the shimmering textures in 'Am Strande von Sorrent' so beautifully realised. The quality of the playing might take some of the edge off Strauss's riotous and notorious take on Faniculi-Fanicula in the finale – 'Neopolitanisches Volksleben' – but it seems churlish to complain.

That Strauss composed Don Juan only a couple of years later is astonishing. In the earlier work, generalised impressions were affixed to a loose symphonic structure, but here the poetic and descriptive impulse dictates, reflecting the need he famously expressed to 'find new form to fit every new subject'. Luisi and his forces capture all the iconoclastic zeal of the piece with poetry and virtuosity; it's a reading that is dangerously seductive and single-mindedly impulsive by turns, all performed with impressive tonal allure.

There's no denying the tonal allure of Jan Vogler playing, either, in Don Quixote. But the close balance of the cello is less than ideal, highlighting a beautifully turned but slightly impersonal portrayal, while Luisi fails to bring as much characterisation from the orchestra as one hears in the very best accounts. It's still a fine performance, though, if not quite on the same level as the first disc.

However, at mid-price, this release can be highly recommended on the strength of Aus Italien and Don Juan alone, with a very respectable Don Quixote as bonus.

By Hugo Shirley