Don Quixote has always been the black sheep among the Richard Strauss tone poems. It has consistently been denied the great popularity of the earlier works, even of later works like Ein Heldenleben. Probably the reason is its extreme digressiveness: it rambles along, absolutely unfettered by considerations of structure, and the resulting lack of logic makes irritating, and even bewildering listening for many. Yet in many ways it is Strauss's greatest work. It shows a variety and a breadth of spirit unequalled in anything else he wrote. The humor in Till Eulenspiegel, for example, is obvious stuff compared to the brilliant whimsy of the Don and his squire Sancho. Not only do individual comic touches, like the army of sheep and the little bassoon sketch of two Benedictine monks, rank in subtlety above anything in Till, but the entire score, including some of the loveliest and most poignant pages, is pervaded with little twists of humor that appreciably deepen the total effect.
Don Quixote reminds me somehow of Petrouchka. It displays the same variety and endless change of pace, the same fertility of invention, and the same amazing use of woodwinds and brasses for striking effects. The introduction contains a weird passage describing the crack-up of Don Quixote's sanity, in which a set of muted trumpets, combined in almost psychopathic harmonies, leap out wildly from the rest of the orchestra and then immediately subside into nothing but troubled mutterings. The famous sheep episode employs muted brasses to suggest the bleating of the sheep, and further on, open trombones play a familiar role as narrators of heroism, in this case mock-heroism.
The new recording of Don Quixote (VICTOR M720) while erring on the side of over-brilliance, is a thoroughly satisfactory job. Eugene Ormandy has an obvious love for the work, which on the whole triumphs over the occasional patchiness of his performance. Feurmann's cello playing is, as always, superlative, and blends admirably with the smooth viola-solo of Samuel Lifschey. The cello solo is one reason why Don Quixote appeals to me more than Ein Heldenleben, in which work the lengthy passages of ultra-sweet, upper-register fiddling get on my nerves so much as to lessen my enjoyment of the work. . . .
No instrument that I know of loses so much in reproduction as the harpsichord. Its particular needly quality becomes merely stringy-sounding when transferred to records. Which is one reason why the Longy School concerts make such a rewarding series, and they are made even more rewarding by the skill and musicianship of Erwin Bodky. The concert of classical chamber-music at the Germanic Museum the other night demonstrated this most beautifully, and there will be future concerts of the same type, which I shall try to mention in advance. Meanwhile, the Stradivarius Quartet has scheduled a program at the Germanic Museum for next Wednesday evening, consisting of the Beethoven Quartet Opus 131 in C Sharp minor, and the Schubert "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, two of the very greatest in the literature.