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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Metamorphosen (arr. Rudolf Leopold) (1945/1994) [25:46]
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13 (1885) [40:26]
Prelude to Capriccio, Op. 85 (1942) [11:04]
The Nash Ensemble
rec. Henry Wood Hall, April 2006
HYPERION CDA67574 [77:33]
Experience Classicsonline


Ordinarily, when you see the Metamorphosen, ostensibly for twenty-three solo strings, and the Capriccio Prelude for string sextet on the same album - say, Salonen's (Sony) - both scores are played by the larger ensemble, with the Capriccio turned into a string-orchestra piece. The Nash Ensemble reverses the pattern: they play the Capriccio in the regulation sextet version - and handsomely, as with the rest of this program - and then add a double-bass for a septet rendition of the Metamorphosen.

Such a performance wasn't exactly Strauss's intention, though you could say it was his idea: apparently, a short score for seven instruments represents one stage of his compositional process, though, after completing it so in March 1945, he almost immediately began expanding it into the familiar final version. The short score, according to Michael Kennedy's note in the booklet, was "discovered in Switzerland in 1990" - was it lost? - and first performed in Rudolf Leopold's performing edition in 1994.

The surprise is that, the stripped-down forces notwithstanding, it doesn't sound like anything's missing here. In fact, there's quite a bit of "functional" duplication - fleshing out of harmonic or rhythmic elements - among the individual parts in Strauss's final Metamorphosen score, along with a fair proportion of flat-out doublings; in the Nash Ensemble's expert performance, the seven stringed instruments suffice to cover all the important elements of the musical texture. Their firm-bowed, vibrant playing sacrifices nothing in projection or tonal richness; if anything, the bass lines register more strongly here, as played by a single bassist, than they do in the full version. The careful balancing, allowing the important parts to dominate as they move through the middle of the texture, bespeaks painstaking care and rehearsal - only towards the end of the fast section does the sonority become a bit thick and cluttered, but that's true in many standard renderings as well.

The two string works here serve as bookends for the early Piano Quartet, in which recognizable Straussian touches color the basic Brahmsian model. Thus, a muscular energy akin to the older composer's carries the first movement along, but the piano writing is more limpid, and the second subject - which, in the recapitulation, strains at the limited chamber-music scale - has an inimitably Straussian melodic curve of the sort familiar from the songs. Similarly, the Scherzo's minor-key grimness is leavened with a scintillating dash, the Andante's final major-key resolution is a literally and unmistakably Straussian turn of phrase, and a few moderately wild chromatic pivots enliven the strongly rhythmic Finale.

As suggested earlier, the playing of the Nash Ensemble members is beautiful, sympathetic, and musically keen, with the strings' clean attacks and balances setting off pianist Ian Brown's fluid, articulate work in the Piano Quartet. The engineering is first-rate, providing warmth along with clear, focused definition. Definitely a worthwhile acquisition, especially for those put off by the Metamorphosen in its usual context.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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