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Strauss: Capriccio Prelude and Final Scene, Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders!, Four Last Songs, Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Bernard Haitink (conductor), Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, 17.12. 2005 (JPr)

The Prelude to Capriccio for a sextet of strings is not only the overture to Richard Strauss's final opera, but also the subject of the opening scene. Capriccio is Strauss's opera about opera, dealing with the dichotomy of words versus music. The curtain rises and the string sextet is still heard as if coming from another room. On stage Flamand, its composer (who represents music) and the poet Olivier (who obviously represents words) are eager to see the Countess's reaction to the piece. Richard Strauss called Capriccio a ‘conversation piece for music,’ an unconventional but fairly apt description.

Munich premiere of Capriccio was in 1942 and the opera deals with an aesthetic question; what is of primary importance in opera, is it the music or the words? The music, which is so typically Strauss in that it is wonderfully elegant and unashamedly romantic, takes up the topic of conversation in a most imaginative way, enabling the piece to serve the drama or to be performed on its own. The various dialogues in the piece and its many contrasting emotions were displayed expertly the six exceptional instrumentalists of the Nash Ensemble.

This was a wonderful opening to a programme entirely of Strauss' music. The glory of Capriccio however is the sublimely lyrical final scene for the Countess, who, as she tries to make up her mind between her suitors, Flamand and Olivier, and answer the problem they have set her, finds the choice painful and almost impossible. It is Strauss (here presented in David Matthews’s new arrangement for voice and ensemble) who gives us the answer since when she prevaricates we sense immediately that it is music that wins, without a doubt!

Felicity Lott sang the famous monologue with great sensitivity. In a staged production she would ponder the questions alone in her salon, wistfully singing the song Flamand has composed to Olivier's sonnet while strumming her harp, but here she was at the front of the small Wigmore Hall platform surrounded by musicians and letting her voice do all the ‘talking’. What the voice has lost in brightness of tone these days, has been replaced by a quailty of world-weariness which is what this demanding soprano solo needs. As we know Strauss’s wife Pauline, was a soprano and may not have been the easiest woman to live with, to say the very least. Consequently, I'm always tempted to think that Strauss tries to get his own back rather on the female voice through his compositions since many are so difficult. Felicity Lott’s technique remains flawless however, even though Strauss is perhaps not so easy for her as it once was, especially in the chest register where there seems to be less support than formerly.

Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders ! is the Merry Pranks appearing here ‘different for once’ as a chamber arrangement for five instruments (violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon and double bass) by Franz Hasenöhrl (believed to be a Viennese professor of music in the 1950s). It loses little of the boisterousness or depiction of a riotously misspent portrayed by the full orchestral version despite being only about half the original length.

Felicity Lott has always been a natural Straussian, not least in the Four Last Songs. The very nature of these songs, where emotions are internalised and where there is demandingly extreme dynamic range, is perfect for her. She retains an exquisite aptitude to float, almost seamlessly, streams of portamento that is most affecting.


Nevertheless, the miracle of the songs lies in the symbiosis between the voice and the orchestra. Here it was given in a new arrangement by James Ledger. Over and over again - in Gareth Hulse’s oboe solo, Marianne Thorsen’s violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen or in Richard Watkins’ wonderful horn solo that closed Im Abendrot - this version gave all the support needed to Felicity Lott’s singing. All of her poetry, poignancy and resignation as she sang of life's closure was complemented wonderfully by the accomplished playing of all the 14 strong Nash Ensemble. This was particularly fitting because after Capriccio, Strauss himself found his interest in instrumental music reviving and he composed for similarly small groups of musicians.

Now didn’t the programme notes say that this was an arrangement for 13 players and that there was no harp? In fact, the ‘fourteenth man’ (woman in this case) was the harpist who made a notable impression at the conclusion of Frühling and there was less playing from the pianist who was confined to striking the strings with a xylophone hammer! None of this was in mentioned in the printed programme and I am reliably informed that James Ledger had toyed with the idea of using a harmonium instead of a piano to try to get a more resonant effect for the arrangement. 


No less a musical giant than Bernard Haitink conducted the Nash Ensemble through the Capriccio Final Scene and the Four Last Songs. I am also fairly sure that Haitink's other contribution was to include the harp into the mix when he heard the arrangement for the first time. Felicity Lott was obviously inspired by the presence of this great conductor and I am sure the chamber ensemble was too, although the 5 or 6 players who played on their own did extremely well however.


I am sorry to end on a whine, but when I started to go to classical concerts in the 1970s, I was often one of the youngest people in the audience. For this event, I was still in the youngest fifth of a sold-out hall. Though this probably doesn't matter much today- in time it surely will!

© Jim Pritchard

A Footnote:


The programme notes for this concert contained a fairly detailed account of Strauss's activities during World War II which may be of some interest here and may be particularly relevant to the Four Last Songs. As a former editor of Wagner News, the contrast between the reputations of Strauss and Wagner in terms of anti-Semitism often strikes me as curious: Wagner is still vilified for his anti-Semitic views and his art is often characterised as being a progenitor of National Socialism, despite the fact he died in 1883.


Wagner's work remains banned in Israel to this day for instance, whilst Strauss’s music (after a shorter period of disfavour) is now almost universally accepted there. What is odd about this, is that from 1933 onwards Richard Strauss was an official of the Third Reich. It is true of course that much controversy remains about his role in Germany after the Nazis came to power: some say that Strauss was consistently apolitical, that he considered most of the powerful Nazis to be philistines, that he never cooperated with the Nazis completely and that it was the fact that his daughter-in-law was Jewish (and his grandchildren part-Jewish) which made him keep his criticisms to himself.

Strauss apparently withdrew from public life after 1935 to his villa at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. He lived there throughout the war and was spared its physical ravages but was deeply affected by the loss of many friends and the bombing of Vienna, Munich and Dresden. In late 1945, under the threat of being called before the Denazification Board, Strauss moved to Switzerland where he lived for the next four years. He was cleared by the Board in 1948, but chose to stay in Switzerland for medical treatment, returning to Garmisch in May 1949, just four months before his death. During his Swiss sojourn he became increasingly enfeebled, though his mind remained clear and he was able to continue composing. He had written his last work in 1948, Vier letzte Lieder ( the Four Last Songs) for soprano and orchestra. All of his life he had composed Lieder, but these farewell-to-life songs are probably the best known. By this time, when compared to the work of younger composers, his harmonic and melodic language sounded somewhat out-dated but nevertheless the songs became popular and have remained so ever since.


Critics however (famously including the British film maker Ken Russell in 1970) have pointed out that Strauss did accept the post of president of the Reichsmusikkammer (the State Music Bureau) and wore its uniform. Although this post was largely ceremonial, some maintain that Strauss should have spoken out against the Nazis and that he naïvely allowed himself to be used by them. In 1935 he was forced to resign the post after refusing to remove the name of its Jewish librettist, his friend Stefan Zweig from the poster for Die schweigsame Frau. He also went on to write Friedenstag, a one-act opera set in a besieged fortress during the Thirty Years War which is usually regarded as a hymn to peace and so a thinly veiled criticism of the Third Reich. Since Friedenstag was staged in 1938 - when Germany was preparing for war - this can be regarded as an extraordinarily brave move. Strauss undoubtedly realised the risk to his family and some have pointed out that this might (reasonably enough) have prevented him speaking out. There are also suggestions that he attempted to use his official position to protect many Jewish friends and colleagues.

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