Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Symphonia domestica Op.53 TrV 209 [46:48]
Metamorphosen TrV 290 [28:18]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Antoni Wit
rec. CCN Weimarhalle, Weimar, Germany, 4-6 July 2005 (Metamorphosen), 27-29 November 2007 (Symphonia)
NAXOS 8.570895 [75:11]
This disc is a follow-up to the same team’s superb performance of Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie. I considered that disc to be possibly the single finest achievement in Naxos’s considerable crown - a performance both epic and humane aided by a superb recording and a magnificent orchestra steeped in Straussian tradition. So it was with considerable expectation that I listened to this performance of the Symphonia domestica. Strauss’s two big programme symphonies are the pieces most often dragged out by his detractors as the ultimate examples of his over-weaning ego and penchant for excess. Certainly they are scored for huge orchestras and last over three quarters of an hour. The thing that jars for many people - particularly in the case of Symphonia Domestica - is the public flaunting of private, even intimate, details - some considering the passionate love music of the adagio voyeuristic and tasteless. I have always felt this is to miss the point - Strauss was a virtuoso of the orchestra in the way others are of the violin. Clearly he delighted in being able to bend it and the rules of form and composition to fit whatever musical plan he had in mind. I feel we as listeners should focus more on the Symphonia element and less on the Domestica. After all, we are quite happy to listen to the extended unconsummated passion of Tristan and Isolde which we accept because it is a story but reject the Strauss because it is considered reportage. This is all a red herring we have been thrown. If we knew nothing of the “programme” behind this piece we would be little worse off. This piece works symphonically better than many other works so labelled. It is down to Strauss’s brilliance that he creates a series of inter-related themes thereby showing a family relationship. These is then able to treat both dramatically and musically in a coherent manner which is logical to both creative strands. As I say, a virtuoso showing off! I absolutely adore this piece. For its unbridled passion and vigour and thrilling orchestration it has few equals; not all great music has to be profound.
So to the current performance, Many of the virtues that graced the earlier disc remain. The Weimar Staatskapelle is a magnificent orchestra. They have a rich burnished tone building on a resonant dark-hued bottom end that is ideal for this style of music. All solos are taken with great style and musicality. To my ear they combine the best of the warmth of the Berlin Philharmonic with the tonal personality of the Dresden Staatskapelle; this is an orchestra I would love to hear perform live. Wit’s approach to the work is essentially similar to that of the Alpine Symphony. He eschews passing drama in favour of a longer more epic stance. This paid dividends in the earlier recording - there was a cumulative power to his interpretation that felt absolutely right. Part of the explanation for that could be that that piece, in following one day in the mountains, could be seen as a metaphor for the traversal of life from birth to death. Symphonia domestica is about a single day and the hustle and bustle that is part of it. Hence there does need to be an urgency about much of the writing. Timings alone are never a good way to judge a performance but Wit, at nearly forty-seven minutes in length, is by some measure the slowest performance I have compared. Szell blazes his way through in just over forty-one - technically stunning - but a rather regimented household one can’t help but feel! Even that most affectionate of Straussians, Kempe, is a good couple of minutes faster. Everything starts well with the character of the orchestra both corporately and individually immediately apparent. I see that this performance was recorded about two years after the earlier one - the Metamorphosen actually dates from the same group of sessions as the Alpine Symphony - with a different engineer. He has not quite caught the inner detail with such a miraculous combination of detail and beauty as his colleague. It is from the central portion of the symphony that the performance as a whole begins to lose its way. Somehow the music seems to become becalmed. This is in part due to the loss of some of the inner detail. The contrapuntal writing in this work is remarkable even by Strauss’s standards so that even when the tempo slows there is an inner energy driving the music forward. This piece was for me one of Järvi’s greater successes in his Chandos cycle. This was due in no small part to the engineers managing to delineate the numerous lines in the musical texture. The extended love-scene lies at the heart of the work and to succeed it does need to overwhelm the listener with a series of climaxes that sweep away reserve and reservations. Sadly, in this, Wit does not succeed - it is beautiful where I want passion and considered where I want wildness. The symphony’s final section with its curious double fugue - the use of such an intellectually rigorous form after the abandon of what has gone before has always mystified me - is in many ways the piece’s weakest element and works best when played with unbuttoned good humour. It features some of the most remarkable horn writing that even Strauss produced which whilst it does register here does not overwhelm as I wish it would; once again Järvi and his SNO horns have a field day here. So I would have to say a worthy performance and an ongoing delight to hear this orchestra but not the automatic first choice I had rather hoped it would be.
Metamorphosen is a very substantial filler. The key to the approach here - and I’m sure that Wit is absolutely correct - is that this is a piece for 23 solo strings. Hence it is in effect a piece of large-scale chamber music. Other performances such as those by Karajan and his Berlin players produce a wall of tone that is remarkable - to the point you wonder how 23 players can produce that much sound - but in doing so the personal nature, the individual character of the loss that is being mourned vanishes. There is a lean quality to the Weimar sound that allows each line to be clearly followed and this reinforces the genius of the contrapuntal writing. It is a sombre performance as befits a piece written as a musical oration for a lost city and culture. Wit again directs a performance that sits at the slower end of a range of timings. Interestingly no performance I have heard clocks in at the 30 minutes indicated in the score. Of those I possess Zinman is slowest at 28:57 with Wit second at 28:16. The broad lamenting approach pays dividends here. Also the recording is splendid, beautifully balanced across the sonic range but with a richness to the bass lines that lets this extraordinary music sit on an harmonic bedrock above which the multitudinous polyphonic lines swoop and intertwine. The hardest element of this work is sustaining the single arc from gentle opening through contorted climax to desolate resolution. Wit’s pacing is excellent; never once do you feel he has allowed the music to peak too soon or conversely to sag. Listen at the very end when finally the Eroica motif in the basses appears unadorned how the accompanying upper strings blanch away their tone and vibrato to produce a final descent into oblivion. Quite superb. There is a sustained intensity to the music-making here that belies it being “just another session”. Clearly the creative fires were burning brightly in Weimar in July 2005! Metamorphosen has been fortunate in receiving many fine performances so I think it quite impossible to single out one as being first amongst equals. However, to my ear this new version is worthy of being considered up there with the very best. Listening several times to both performances on this disc I have no doubt that the earlier engineering of the string work is finer than that accorded the symphony although the latter is by no means poor.
Worth mentioning at this point Keith Anderson’s typically fine liner-note which explains with concision and clarity the genesis of both works. He points out, among many interesting facts, that Metamorphosen was composed in less than one month first note to last (13th March - 12th April 1945) - an astonishing burst of creativity for any composer producing a work of such complexity let alone one some 77 years old.
All in all another powerful disc of Strauss from Wit and his Weimar orchestra. For a Domestica of sheer delight I would turn elsewhere but an excellent Metamorphosen is more than compensation and at the price a Naxos disc well worth the purchasing.