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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Music for Wind Instruments Vol. 2

Suite in B flat major op.4 [22:23] (1884?)
Serenade in E flat major op.7 [8:06] (1884)
Sonatina "From the Workshop of an Invalid" in F major [33:15] (1944)
Ensemble Villa Musica – (In Suite and Serenade) Henrik Wiese, Julie Stewart (flutes), Ingo Goritzki, Annette Schütz (oboes), Ulf Rodenhäuser, Tim Kieselhofer (clarinets), Radovan Vlatkovic, Traianos Eleftheriadis, Hubert Renner, Andreas Stopfnek (horns), Dag Jensen, Matthias Rácz, (bassoons), Kumiko Maruyama (contrabassoon)
(In Sonatina) Jean-Claude Gérard, Alexander Auer (flutes), Ingo Goritzki, Christian Wetzel (oboes), Martin Walter (Clarinet in C), Ulf Rodernhäuser, Vaclav Cernavka (clarinets), Kerstin Grötsch (basset horn), Berhard Nusser (bass clarinet), Wolfgang Gaag, Filip Kovak, Jeanine Rödig, Klaus Gayer (horns), Dag Jensen, Rebecca Mertens (bassoons), Kumiko Maruyama (double bassoon)
rec. 11-12 Dec 2000 (Sonatina), 8-9 Apr 2002 (Suite and Serenade), Fürstliche Reitbahn Ban Arolsen.
MDG GOLD MDG 304 1173-2 [64:09]

 

It came as quite a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, to find another recording of the early Strauss Suite so relatively soon after the one by I Solisti del Vento that I reviewed in July. Though I found the playing to be of a high standard on that issue, I complained about the balance, with horns often far too loud. That problem does not arise here, for engineers and performers have succeeded in balancing the work ideally, so that all important material can be heard - which applies not just to the Suite but to the other two works as well.

Ensemble Villa Musica are a German-based group whose members are all distinguished players from top symphony orchestras, and they play without a conductor. That is a real achievement, particularly in music such as the late Sonatina, with its intricate – some might say fussy – textures and often daunting technical challenges. Interestingly, though, it is the Sonatina which brings the finest performance on the disc.

The op.4 Suite, though played well enough, has one or two questionable decisions where a conductor might have helped. For example, the 1st movement is really too quick for the indicated Allegretto, making the music sound rushed. Similarly, the transition from the finale’s introduction to the main section of the movement is misjudged, with a hectic accelerando that goes nowhere. Similarly, the delightful one-movement Serenade lacks a sufficient sense of flexibility. Whatever the young Strauss may have said about the piece (he was dismissive), it is attractive, and has a magical coda, which is made to sound a bit matter-of-fact here.

"From the Workshop of an Invalid", as Strauss described his Sonatina of 1944, is a title hardly designed to inspire confidence! But have no fear: this is ‘echt’ late period Strauss, from the composer of the "Four Last Songs" and the Second Horn Concerto, full of passages of glorious Autumnal beauty, and the players of Villa Musica miss no opportunity to communicate expressively. Perhaps the finale is just a tad leisurely when it starts, for there is certainly no urgency in Strauss’s mind, and he indulges to the full his love of musical sub-plots. But the advantage is that all the details are beautifully and lovingly in place, so that I found this ultimately a moving experience; the playing of the first horn and oboe is particularly fine, but the work of the entire ensemble is top notch.

It is fascinating to compare the early Suite and Serenade with the late Sonatina, for the intervening sixty years contains all the music for which Strauss became world-famous. He was undoubtedly harking back to his youth, both in this Sonatina and in the - to my mind anyway - far less attractive Symphony in E flat, which can be found on Volume 1 of this series. The early works were written for thirteen wind instruments (note the Mozartean figure!) - two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, one contrabassoon and four horns – while the late works expanded this by adding the shrill C clarinet and basset horn (a sort of tenor clarinet). Only two instruments, yet the difference they make in the richness of sonority available to the composer is remarkable.

This is a superbly engineered recording, for wind instruments are amongst the hardest to record satisfactorily, and this CD is a distinguished addition to the Strauss discography.

A little foot-note; according to the booklet, the Suite and Serenade contain a ‘contra-bassoon’ and the Sonatina a ‘double bassoon’. In case you were wondering – they’re the same thing!

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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