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.