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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
CD 1
Don Quixote, Op. 35 (1897) [40.44]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1895) [14.41]
Der Rosenkavalier: Waltzes (1910) [18.36]
CD 2
Metamorphosen (1945) [28.39]
Capriccio: Sextet (1941) [10.14]
Die Frau ohne Schatten: Symphonic Fantasy (1946) [22.04]
Feuersnot: Love Scene (1901) [5.59]
Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils (1905) [9.51]
Tibor de Machula (cello); Klaas Boon (viola); Theo Olof (violin)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, April – May 1974 (Don Quixote). ADD
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Eugen Jochum
rec. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, June 1960 (Till Eulenspiegel) and September 1960 (Rosenkavalier). ADD
Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra/Karl Münchinger
rec. Schlossludwigsburg, Stuttgart, June 1971 (Capriccio). ADD
Staatkapelle Dresden/Giuseppe Sinopoli
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, December 1994 (Metamorphosen) and May 1995 (Die Frau, Feuersnot, Salome). DDD
ELOQUENCE 480 0478 [74.22 + 77.18]
Experience Classicsonline

 

My first contact with the music of Richard Strauss was a performance of Also sprach Zarathustra by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by, I think, Hugo Rignold, in Liverpool, probably in 1968. I was unimpressed, particularly by those closing pages, nor did Till Eulenspiegel, typical schoolboy fare, do much to change my opinion. Other works did, though gradually: Salome, Elektra, Rosenkavalier, the oboe concerto and the Four Last Songs all captivated me, one by one. And then there was one other, of which more later.

Leading a sheltered life, I’ve never seen Feuersnot, Strauss’s second opera, completed in 1901. He later prepared an orchestral version of the love scene from this incendiary story, which is performed on this highly desirable compilation. Strauss is one of those composers whose music is generally recognisable from its first note, and so it is here. The music is dramatic, opulently orchestrated, and rises to a fine and palpably theatrical climax. It makes an effective concert piece, but I’m not sure I would come back to it very often, all the same.

Not so the orchestral work Strauss created near the end of his life based on themes from Die Frau ohne Schatten. This music also quickly reveals its theatrical origins, but its larger scale and cogent structure make for an altogether more compelling concert experience. Sinopoli conducts both works at white heat.

I’ll take the opportunity here to praise the booklet essay by Raymond Tuttle. He deals with each work in turn, giving background information and exactly the amount of description needed to help the listener. All this is expressed in simple, direct language. If only everyone had this facility! He also dares to use humour. The Dance of the Seven Veils, for example, is described as “the most celebrated striptease in opera.” I take back some of my praise: is there another one?. Sinopoli’s reading, sinuous and thick with the opera’s sickly perfume, rounds off the second disc of this collection.

I don’t think an uninformed listener would necessarily identify the Sextet from Capriccio as a work whose origins were in the theatre, and certainly not as an opera overture, which is what it effectively is, ostensibly composed by one of the characters in the opera itself. It is typical of Strauss’s late style, rich and mellow, possessed of an almost Olympian restraint compared to his earlier manner, and with melodic lines rendering the fabric almost seamless. This arrangement for string orchestra of what in the opera is written for string sextet is beautifully played here by the Stuttgart players under that underrated conductor, Karl Münchinger.

The usual English translation of the full title of Till Eulenspiegel refers to the protagonist’s “merry pranks”. Superbly played though Eugen Jochum’s performance is, he seems not see his hero this way. Tempi are generally fast and the reading as a whole is hard driven, as if the conductor is seeking to underline the more unpleasant aspects of the young rogue’s character, Till as turbulent agitator rather than lovable mischief-maker. It’s a valid enough view of the character, but there’s no denying that much of the work’s charm is lost. Sadly, I had the same reaction to the two suites from Der Rosenkavalier, where accents are heavily emphasised leading to waltzes which are curiously short on lilt. The opera itself almost miraculously recreates a sense of time and place, but one wouldn’t sense much of it from these performances. These two readings, both short on affection, are the only disappointments in the collection, though others may feel differently. The recordings, lacking some richness and body compared to the superb quality of the rest, are also beginning to show their age.

By any reckoning the Concertgebouw performance of Don Quixote is a magnificent one. Of course, any account of this work stands or falls by the quality of the solo cellist, and here the role is triumphantly assumed by Tibor de Machula. Hungarian by birth, he retired as principal cellist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1977, a post he had occupied for thirty years, having previously held the same post in Berlin, following an invitation from Furtwängler. Don Quixote was inspired by the Cervantes novel whose hero, a man of disordered mind, embarks upon a series of chivalrous adventures the outcome of which, each time, is singularly unsatisfactory. Cervantes develops the character in far greater depth than this and Strauss’s music, in a way that only music can, goes even further. For those allergic to Strauss’s tone poems, this is perhaps the most easily digested, and the composer provided a detailed programme to aid the listener. In this performance surface brilliance and show are reined in. Here both soloist and conductor seem to want to emphasise the basic goodness and nobility of the character. De Machula plays with total commitment and a kind of grandeur – the word is carefully chosen – which transcends the simple notion of music making. This seems to me a more valid view of the work than the concerto-like brilliance of many other performances, including that of Rostropovich with Karajan, brilliantly though it is played. Anyone acquiring this collection will probably already own a recorded version of one or other of the works, but this reading of Don Quixote could easily be a first or only choice, though I reserve the right to remain loyal also to Tortelier and Kempe on EMI.

At the beginning of this review I refer to one other Strauss work which has meant much to me over many years, and here it is. Metamorphosen, a “study for twenty-three solo strings” was one of the composer’s final works, completed in 1945 to a commission from Paul Sacher. Strauss provided neither explanation nor programme for it, but the date is crucial: it is a meditation on destruction and loss following the laying waste of Munich, Dresden and Vienna in the final phase of the Second World War. Strauss began work on the full score the day after the Vienna Opera House was all but destroyed by bombs, and the work is his grief-stricken response to the destruction not only of places dear to him, but also of wider European culture. There is nothing remotely nationalistic about the work, no bitterness even, only sorrow. At the end of the completed manuscript the composer wrote “In memoriam!”

The work itself is a virtuoso series of variations, of extreme beauty, and long-breathed in Strauss’s late manner. From the sombre opening to the desolate close, where Strauss quotes from the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica, to which the whole work has been leading, the intensity of the music never lets up. Sinopoli is probably too slow in the long, first paragraph – the performance runs about a minute longer than most, including Barbirolli, supreme in this work – but the stupendous control he exerts, plus the astonishingly rich and commanding playing from the Dresden strings convinces us. He was never a conductor of restrained emotions, and this performance pulls no punches, but there is no excess here, and the performance is one of almost unbearable intensity.
 
William Hedley
 



 


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