The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (another SSO) seems, in a favourite Australian cliché, to punch above its weight. It’s appeared at festivals in Prague and Dresden. I hope it won’t sound patronising to say that on the strength of this CD, they’re a fine orchestra but not yet a great one. They certainly throw their heart and soul into everything here.
Macbeth was Strauss’s first tone poem and he was clearly feeling his way. Despite subsequent revisions, the work has never caught on: it’s gloomy – almost to the point of murkiness. Admittedly, Strauss didn’t intend it to convey the action, rather more the character of the Macbeths. No wonder it’s never ended up in the repertoire: even the coronation march (in 3/4 rather than the usual 4/4 time) hardly sounds festive. Still, good on them for including it.
The Rosenkavalier Suite (one of umpteen Strauss concocted as a royalty revenue-raising project) was quite the opposite: from the outset Lan Shui displays an impressive flair for echt-Wien rubato in the famous fanfare and the rest is, alternately, idiomatically affectionate and spiritedly rumbustious.
The final work on the CD tests the orchestra’s mettle more severely. Death and Transfiguration is one of Strauss’s masterpieces. Here, they’re up against the big guns. The players are clearly being pushed to an extreme. The sound is fine and, apart from a few minor lapses in ensemble, the actual performance is very good. However, who wants to pay top dollar when there are blazingly sublime performances from Berlin, Vienna, Dresden or Leipzig? I fished out both Karajan’s: with the legendary “old” Philharmonia in the mid-50s and, despite being the slowest, it was like watching a Maserati sleekly negotiating an autostrada. The second, with the Berlin Philharmonic, was the musical equivalent of a turbo-charged Bentley hugging the hairpin bends on the Grande Corniche above Monaco.
Works: Macbeth, Rosenkavalier Suite, Death and Transfiguration
Performers: Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
Label: BIS BIS2342