Gerald Fenech

Richard Strauss is certainly one of the most recorded composers of the 20th century, so deciding to take the plunge with another such venture is a high risk indeed. I must say that the versions by Mark Elder of Don Juan and Macbeth were a wonderful surprise, and they can certainly hold their own against some of the most famous interpretations, past masters included.

Elder's portrayal of Don Juan is not of the dissolute that we are accustomed with, but of a boyish rogue who wants to have a go at life, even at the expense of his own existence. This approach aids the listener no end to discover a certain freshness in the music, which in other hands is very often stifled.

Macbeth has always played second fiddle to its more illustrious partner (in the recording studio), but music-wise it is a more cogent work, certainly more dramatic and taut. Elder approaches this immortal character with a strong empathy to his miserable plight at the hand's of his wife's instigation. We are led to believe that Macbeth's deeds are not really his own, but of one that is over-ambitious and pitiless. This is all marvellously brought out in a version of stupendous power and sincerity that penetrates the very soul of the story, bringing to light all the seething passions and pallid weaknesses of the protagonist.

The disc also includes seven songs from the around two hundred that Strauss composed during his long career. These are sung by the soprano Anne Schwanewilms, a new name yes, but definitely a rising and shining voice in the singing firmament. Her renditions of these exquisite songs, particularly 'Morgen' and 'Befreit' are absolutely immaculate. Her natural gift for sensitivity is astounding and the way she expounds every shade and nuance of this music, is to say the least, magical.

The Hallé Orchestra responds sympathetically to both conductor and soloist and the reputation they enjoy of an ensemble always alert and attentive to all the details of the scores is amply attested to on this CD, which at its price is a true bargain.