An "unfair" advantage? Yes, for several reasons...In addition to having a self-effacing genius for Wagner, Brahms and Richard Strauss,
Rudolf Kempe was a Dresden-area native, and knew all the lesser-known "odd corners" of Strauss' output. And the Dresdeners bring something to the Straussian "table" which no other orchestra could provide- not even Karajan's Berlin, Reiner's Pittsburgh & Chicago or Szell's Cleveland...
Because not only did 9 of Strauss's 15 operas premiere in Dresden, WITH THIS ORCHESTRA, but practically all of them were constantly in and out of the repetoire. And well into the 1970s, when these recordings were made, there must have been several members of the orchestra who had performed under Strauss himself...All that vivid characterization, feeling and stylistic "memory," applied to the orchestral works. This contributed to the Dresdeners' innate mastery of two of Strauss' most challenging traits:
1) his quirky, Half Italian-Half German sense of melody
(Sir Tommy Beecham: "The melody of Strauss is not German, it is Italian") and
2) his strange mixture of objectivity & subjectivity, i.e.,
the most disturbing aspect of Strauss' art- more so than mere volume & dissonance. (It was THIS which made Strauss a child of Mozart, as opposed to the post-Beethovenian, then post-Schoenbergian paradigms which dominated German music during Strauss' long lifetime).
The result is that, in these performances, Strauss' orchestral works are animated and illuminated as never before or since...What Reiner and Szell achieved with supreme, from-scratch effort
is brought to the surface almost effortlessly and naturally...
What, in lesser hands, comes off as trivial (Burleske, Domestica, Le Bourgeoise), is now fascinating
and whimsical; what seemed "bombastic" (Heldenleben, Domestica, Joseflegende, Zarathustra) is now deeply human and even humorous. And it's all executed with a sense of the post-Wagnerian orchestra as a marvellous toy which the "child" Strauss couldn't wait to play with. This stems from Strauss' earliest influence, before Brahms and Wagner, and that was Mendelssohn. Indeed, Strauss never lost his Mendelssohnian
sense of fantasy and whimsy, even in his "heaviest" works
(DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN, ELEKTRA).
This is true of the earliest work presented here, the VIOLIN CONCERTO, completed when Strauss was 17. Strauss was hard on this piece when he said that "No one after Brahms should have written such a thing." As it turns out, Brahms' VIOLIN CONCERTO was only three years older, and while the first movement begins in a forceful, "Brahmsian" vein, the Mendelssohnian whimsical aspect, and Strauss' own developing sensibility, win out time and again: TILL & DON QUIOXTE in the "womb," so to speak. And no one has drawn out these qualities more than Ulf Hoelscher, Kempe and the Dresdeners.
The BURLESKE, with Malcolm Frager, is tonally beautiful and acerbically witty at the same time: Mendelssohn, Brahms, and a passing wink at Wagner- with Strauss' sensibility growing at an alarming rate. The HORN CONCERTOS, with Peter Damm, are scintillatingly lucid and fresh- although, of course, NOBODY could beat the classic Dennis Brain/Sawallisch disc. The late concertos (Oboe, Second Horn, and especially the Clarinet-Bassoon Duet-Concerto) are deft, contemplative, and seem to cross the same autumnal landscape as Brahms' op. 114-120 (the clarinet chamber works and the late piano pieces).
The COUPERIN Suite of 1923 is a posh, refined pleasure; and the best passages in the JOSEFLEGENDE "Fragment" come off as sort of "Zarathustra Revisited." The SALOME DANCE OF THE 7 VEILS is more senusous than Reiner's, less glossy than Karajan's. The ROSENKAVALIER WALTZES, in an arrangement by Kempe himself, are, to say the least, "idiomatic." The BOURGEOISE GENTILHOMME Suite is the best complete one in stereo- enough to give even Fritz Reiner a run for his money: polish, devastating wit, consummate stylistic ease. However, not even Kempe & the Dresdeners can make more than rambling curiosities out of the PARERGON ZUR SYMPHONIA DOMESTICA and the PANATHENAENZUG. (The less said about the thankfully brief SCHLAGOBERS WALTZ, the better.)
The four "outer" program works (AUS ITALIEN & MACBETH, the DOMESTICA & EINE ALPENSINFONIE) are, put simply, definitive...
AUS ITALIEN shines with all sorts of unexpected colors- especially the third movement's portrayal of shimmering water- a passage which captured the imagination of even Claude Debussy when he heard it. The MACBETH sizzles with drama and that infamous Straussian "counterpoint of nerves."
The DOMESTCIA conjours up a lost, Pre-WW I world of holidays-at-the-seaside, children in sailor suits and seemingly permanent security...No wonder that, in Vienna in 1939, on his 75th birthday (under the Nazis and with war obviously coming), just after he conducted the DOMESTICA, Strauss was found outside the "green room," in tears, muttering "Now it's all over ! "
Then perhaps the greatest recording in this box: EINE ALPENSINFONIE- one of the great Strauss recordings of all time...You get a feeling of rich, inner spirituality and seemingly effortless, wholistic detail. Yet, for all its inner integrity, this ALPENSINFONIE paradoxically projects more "atmosphere, color and scent" than any other. (Go figure.)
The DON JUAN is "hot" and crisply executed enough to energize one's libido. The TILL is the essence of insolent cheekiness, making some "punk rock" attitudes seem genteel by comparison.
Only in two of the tone-poems does Kempe fall short of the very greatest stereo versions: 1) His ZARATHUSTRA is lyrical and lucid, but lacks a certain "narrative core" ; certainly it's not the "movie music of the mind" we've come to expect from the glossy 1973 Karajan. Still, for my money, the very greatest stereo ZARATHUSTRAS are Karl Bohm's 1958 Berlin and (as a close "second") Reiner's 1954 Chicago. 2) The TOD is indeed moving, and refreshingly lacks any hint of sticky pathos, but it simply hasn't got the ontological intensity of Reiner's 1950 RCA account, any of Furtwangler's (live or studio); or Szell's 1957 Cleveland...You couldn't go WRONG with Kempe's versions, or even begin to call them "failures." It's just that there are greater ones.
But the DON QUIOXTE is one of the best, more warmly human and dignified than either of Reiner's versions, or Szell's or Karajan's. An exquisitely chiselled picture of poignant regret and compassion. Many have preferred Kempe & Tortelier's earlier Berlin "DQ" (available on Testament), but the Dresdeners sound as if they were BORN to play and to master the bittersweetness of this work. Still, for the greatest hi-fi DQ, go to Szell & Fournier - not the dry-as-dust 1961 Cleveland disc, but the live 1964 Concertgebouw (on Audiophile Classics). You'll never regret it.
The HELDENLEBEN has more humanity and less "bombast" than almost any version since the 1947 Beecham, but, of course, with even greater sonic impact.
The METAMORPHOSEN is preferable to any of Karajan's versions, for its greater clarity and unassuming spirituality. Nevertheless, to get the real measure of this work's Brucknerian depth, you must have Furtwangler's live 1947 version. (This is available on DG, finally in listenable sound).
Although the 9 discs in the 1999 boxed set are NOT fresh, from-scratch transfers, there seems to be greater high-end definition and a warmer, more "tube"-like ambience than in the last incarnation of these recordings (the 3-volume 1992 edition).
...Characterization, stylistic genius, humanity. I can't say anything more.