CDs / DVDs

www.amazon.com, 24. Mai 2000
Haenchen is ever reliable and a sound guide

It is with some trepidation that I submit a review for one of Strauss's greatest and oft-recorded tone poems. I especially feel that I have inadequate comparison resources because I do not own any of the Reiner, Koussetivsky (sp), analog Karajans, the Sony and EMI Ormandy's, Solti, and Kempe, among other notable interpreters of this wonderful stuff.
However, having compared Karajan's last digital effort (DG) with Ormandy's analogue RCA and Haenchen, I think Haenchen wins out. No, he doesn't have some of the special touches that Karajan has, but Karajan is a little slow, though not boring. Ormandy is wonderful until the RCA engineers destroy the intent behind Strauss's orchestration by spotlighting the violin solo, which turns up in the listener's lap. What Haenchen has is an over-all structural view, breadth, and other-worldly conception that matches his more famous colleagues, and an orchestra that can execute it, albeit lacking the last ounce of virtuosity or tonal splendor...but not by much.
Recorded in the Concertgebouw, the listener gets plenty of hall ambience. There is no spotlighting, and the dynamic range is fine. The engineering could have been a little less clinical and cold sounding with more detail, but it certainly puts RCA's efforts for Ormandy in the shade.
The famous opening statement points to all of Haenchen's strengths: whereas Karajan lets you know that he's driving one of the world's finest orchestras, highlighting dynamic contrasts in those first 2 minutes, and Ormandy wants you to remember that there are cymbal crashes, Haenchen brings a blended, well-thought synthesis of the orchestration, with an enthusiastic and responsive tympanist. Only the volume of the organ disappoints slightly. However, the rumble (echo) at the end of that first statement is a perfect lead-in to the other-worldly sounds of the next section (The Backwoodsmen).
Two other sections worth noting. The Convalescent section in Karajan is pokey and too smooth--Strauss asks for marcato. Ormandy's players give that in spades, and among these three recordings, his Convalescent is really the best; however, Haenchen's tempo is well-judged, and the orchestra plays with passion. He could've taken slightly more rubato before the final fortissimo passage that transitions to the quiet part of this section, but it is good nonetheless.
Finally, the all-important violin solo honors most go to Haenchen. Sure, Karajan's soloist is just fine, but the engineering in Haenchen gives you the perspective that Strauss wanted, and the accompanying voices are perfectly balanced. In Ormandy's recording, the soloist is very closely miked, destroying that, and you hear every stupid scratch and the frequent intonation corrections (it's a hard solo, full of double stops).
So the short of it is: even though Haenchen is hardly a household name, the Netherlands Philharmonic is neither Berlin Phil or The Philadelphia, and the cost of the disk is negligable, this is an excellent performance worthy of your time and money, even with some fuzzy and clnical engineering. Hesitate not.

Gregory M. Zinkl (Chicago, IL)