Houston Symphony shows off its many gifts Songs: Upstart Texans are clearly better than Philadelphians on competing discs of Richard Strauss music.

Classical Sounds

September 22, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Richard Strauss, "Four Last Songs," five songs for soprano and orchestra and "Rosenkavalier" Suite, performed by soprano Renee Fleming (in the songs), the Houston Symphony, Christoph Eschenbach conducting (BMG Classics 09026-68539-2); Strauss, "Four Last Songs," two songs for soprano and orchestra and 13 songs for soprano and piano, performed by soprano Barbara Hendricks, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor and pianist (EMI Classics 5 55594):

These competing versions of Richard Strauss' autumnal "Four Last Songs" -- in which the upstart Houston Symphony clearly outplays the revered Philadelphia Orchestra -- demonstrate that traditional notions of orchestral hierarchy need revision. Houston's ensemble at the beginning of "Fruehling" is tighter, as it is at the end of the final "Im Abendrot"; its horn players perform with security and expressiveness superior to the Philadelphians; and its strings are more plushly upholstered and shine with greater radiance.

Houston's playing is, of course, a tribute to Eschenbach's skill as orchestra builder in the eight years he has been music director. But Houston's performance testifies most of all to the presence of a great conductor. Eschenbach leads these pieces with a melodic sweep that recalls the performances of his mentor, George Szell. And he achieves this sense of line with an unaffected, but most affecting, attention to detail: Compared to the way Eschenbach, for example, lets a chord die before beginning the next one in "Im Abendrot," the experienced Sawallisch seems a mere time-beater. Performances such as this suggest that the 56-year-old Eschenbach -- in the late Romantic and post Romantic Austro-Germanic repertory, at least -- is the most gifted conductor of his generation.

On this disc, the conductor and his orchestra are working with one of today's most gifted sopranos. Renee Fleming is only in her middle 30s, but her interpretation of the "Four Last Songs" seems the finest since Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was in her prime. Her voice is actually a more beautiful instrument than Schwarzkopf's. Most interpreters of this music who can negotiate its silvery upper register (as Schwarzkopf memorably did) are uncomfortable with its low notes; and those who can take the low notes in stride (as Jessye Norman can) are less at ease at higher altitudes. But Fleming sails confidently into the subterranean ecstasies of "Fruehling," without having to resort to crooning as Schwarzkopf and Barbara Hendricks do, and she utterly commands the music's uppermost reaches.

Her interpretation is also dramatically different from that of Schwarzkopf and her imitators. Fleming eschews the coy and and somewhat cool manner that the German soprano's influential recordings have made standard. She uses her radiant, full-bodied voice with taste, sensitivity and open-heartedness that cast a fresh light on this familiar music.

About Eschenbach's reading of the popular "Rosenkavalier" ,X Suite, suffice it to say that it's the best this listener has heard and makes him anticipate the occasion when this remarkable conductor turns his attention to the complete opera.

Brahms, Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, "Academic Festival Overture" and "Alto Rhapsody," performed by the Houston Symphony and Dunja Vejzovic (in the "Alto Rhapsody"), Christoph Eschenbach conducting (Virgin Classics 2 CDs 5 61226):

These performances, recorded in 1991 and 1992 and newly reissued at a budget price, remain among the finest available. As he does in his more recent recording of Strauss' "Four Last Songs," Eschenbach opts for tempos that are among the slowest on records. But he justifies those tempos in performances that, without distending the music's line, endow these works with nobility, gravitas and -- particularly in the Symphony No. 3 -- explosive cumulative force.

Hear the music

To hear excerpts from "Four Last Songs," sung by Renee Fleming with Christoph Eschenbach leading the Houston Symphony, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6195. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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