Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53 (1903) [46:48]
Metamorphosen (1945) [28:18]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Antoni Wit
rec. CCN Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany, July 2005 (Metamorphosen) and November 2007
NAXOS 8.570895 [75:11] 

Richard Strauss married the soprano Pauline de Ahna in 1894. Many of his songs were composed for her, and aspects of her formidable personality can be perceived in several of the composer’s soprano operatic roles. Their volatile relationship is well documented, but they were a devoted couple nonetheless, and the Four Last Songs are the composer’s touching final homage to her. Inconsolable when he died, she survived him for less than a year. Their son, Franz, was born in 1897. Reading about their family life - doting parents would be a gross understatement - one wonders how Strauss managed to find the time, peace and quiet to compose at all. Yet he did, and the Symphonia Domestica presents a happy picture of a single day spent in the Strauss household.

Trying to decide the extent to which the work is really a symphony is fairly fruitless. Arguments for and against have been put forward, but those concerned have not even been able to agree on how many movements there are. More interesting is the fact that it is the last work but one in the important series of tone poems that the composer brought to an end in 1914 with the Alpine Symphony, devoting almost all his energies thereafter to the composition of operas. Keith Anderson, in his excellent booklet note, divides the work into five sections. The three members of the family are presented in the first section, and the child is shown to various aunts and uncles. The second section represents the child playing happily whilst his parents, just as happily, watch. The young Franz is bathed and put to bed in the third section, whilst the fourth represents all that happens whilst he is asleep - the motifs representing him are absent from this passage - including music containing a fair erotic charge. The final section is a ebullient scene of family happiness launched - well, you would, wouldn’t you? - by a double fugue. Strauss noted the programme in detail in a sketchbook and on the score, and the more one listens the more one is able to pinpoint the different events.

The work has its detractors, but in truth it communicates such a notion of utter contentment that it is difficult to resist, and as a portrait of family life is certainly worlds apart from that which he went on to depict in the opera which occupied him for the next two years or so, Salome. It receives an absolutely superb performance here from the Staatskapelle Weimar under the Polish conductor, Antoni Wit. One is immediately struck by the wonderful sound of the orchestra, a richness and roundness, totally lacking in any superficial brilliance, in short, an ideal sound for Richard Strauss. The strings are golden in tone, which takes nothing away from the superbly characterful playing of the winds, and the whole supported by a solid bass line of the utmost clarity. I can find nothing to fault in Wit’s reading of the work, nothing that I should have wanted to hear otherwise. I have only heard one other performance on record, that by Rudolf Kempe in Dresden from the mid-1970s. It is remarkably similar in atmosphere to the present performance, and only loyalty to Kempe, one of my favourite conductors, makes me favour it slightly over this new reading. One feels very much at home with both.

The disc is completed by Metamorphosen, a “study for twenty-three solo strings” and perhaps one of the saddest pieces of music ever composed. It is the composer’s appalled response to the wartime destruction not only of places dear to him, such as the Vienna Opera, but also of wider European culture. There is nothing remotely nationalistic about the work, no bitterness even, only sorrow. At the end of the manuscript the composer wrote “In memoriam!”

I have for decades been faithful to Sir John Barbirolli’s reading of this masterpiece. A single sweep of music of the utmost passion, the work could have been made for him. Ensemble might be better elsewhere, but no other performance matches his in emotional expressiveness. Well, almost none. I reviewed recently a Strauss collection on Eloquence which included a Dresden performance of Metamorphosen conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, and pressed - though I would have to be hard-pressed - I might have to say that Sinopoli comes even closer to the grief-stricken world this music is meant to evoke than Barbirolli does. I had high hopes for the performance from Weimar, and these were, for the most part, fulfilled. In terms of sound alone it is one of the most beautiful readings I have heard, with those wonderful strings so evident in the Symphony given centre stage. One hears the part-writing with splendid clarity, a credit to the entire team, including the recording engineers. But the conductor seems anxious to avoid excess, and this slight restraint makes for a performance somewhat lacking in intensity when directly compared to some others. There are one or two questionable tempo choices too, especially an awkward gear change at 18:05, admittedly following the only - tiny - passage in the work where the level of inspiration falls below the celestial. Even the final chord might have been held a fraction longer. Let me not make too much of this: any receptive person acquiring this superb disc for the Symphonia Domestica and hearing the Metamorphosen for the first time will undoubtedly be deeply moved by it. But there are other performances that dig even deeper, and notably, of the many I have heard, the two mentioned above.

William Hedley