This a straight reissue in a box at bargain price of the series of performances originally released on the Arts label. With nine well-filled discs there is a lot of music to consider here but there are a few general comments that serve all the discs well. This is a comprehensive set including within its chamber-music remit the works for solo piano and the two piano/four hand transcriptions of orchestral and other works. The performances stem mainly from live concerts given in Music between 1985-95 under the auspices of the Richard Strauss Institut Munich and the Bayerischer Rundfunk. Technically the recordings are very good in a pleasingly unobtrusive and neutral manner. Audience noise is at an absolute minimum except for appreciative applause at the end of works. All of the performers are unfussily expert. The stand-out name is that of conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch who is the pianist/accompanist is the bulk of the non piano-centric works. But several of his colleagues he accompanies are players of the first rank who provide performances of real stature. Presentation is in Brilliant Classics’ typically smart but minimalist style; a solid box containing the nine discs each in a cardboard sleeve which gives details of the music, performers and recording dates. There is nominally a liner note credited to Malcolm MacDonald but in a mere two pages of small type it is unfair to expect him to be able to bring his usual level of expertise and insight to bear; this is little more than a chronological list. Crucially for one work in particular there are no texts – but then if memory serves neither was there in the original release sold at a significantly higher price point. This set appears to be retailing at around £2.00 - £2.50 per disc and as such represents superb value for the curious completist collector.
Perhaps like other collectors I had previously ‘cherry-picked’ this series of discs so my especial pleasure here was discovering the unfamiliar pieces and performances. With regard to this music I find myself fascinated and frustrated in turn. Nearly all of it is appealing at the very least but very little of it could be termed great, certainly when measured against the masterpieces of Strauss’s later years. I suppose the regret is that he never returned to the chamber music form (the Capriccio Sextet is NOT included here) late in life in the way he did with the glorious late orchestral works. The young Strauss was a man on a mission and someone with an eye on the main chance. Once he established that the opera house presented the best opportunity for fame and particularly fortune he left behind him the chamber forms in which he’d flexed his considerable compositional muscles. “Confident” and “Ambitious” are two words that recur repeatedly when listening to this music. For sure much of the style and form and musical content is to a degree derivative but Strauss handles it with a bravura panache far beyond his age. Dip into just about any of the works here written from his mid teens to mid-twenties and you will hear instantly what I mean. What I do find absolutely fascinating is that a composer like Korngold could show infinitely more individuality in his compositions at a comparable age but develop almost not at all. The sixteen year-old Korngold is clearly the musical ‘father’ of the fifty year old; with Strauss the lineage is all but impossible to perceive.
Each volume presents a satisfying programme in its own right although there does not appear any particular reason for the ordering of the discs. Disc 1 is of music for Piano Quartet with Sawallisch partnering members of the Sinnhoffer-Quartett. It embodies many of the virtues of the entire set. None of the music is familiar but it is all played with brilliance and conviction. The big work is the 38 minute Piano Quartet written when Strauss was 21 for a competition which it won. This is Strauss at his most Brahmsian and you cannot avoid the thought that the piano is used to help thicken the textures to a quasi-orchestral power. The gems on this disc are the Two Pieces of 1893 – an Arabian Dance and a Liebesliedchen. The former is as unexpected and quirky a character piece as you will ever hear by Strauss - and the audience think so too - whilst the latter is as luscious a bit of salon music imaginable. Overall an auspicious start to the set. Disc 2 is a tougher nut. Not for any lack of quality in performance but this might well be a disc I never play again ….ever! An inability to speak German is something of a hindrance when assessing a pair of melodramas lasting all but an hour where no texts or even synopses are provided. Great tracts of Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden are unaccompanied so even though narrator Elisabeth Woska does (I’m sure) a sterling – and thankfully unhistrionic – job it is hard to listen to without starting to count the cracks in the ceiling. The Mrongovius piano duo are model accompanists and make the most out of every opportunity to illuminate the narrative but it is very hard not to come to the conclusion that this is an art-form that served a purpose in an earlier age. For those of sterner mien than I it is quite easy to track down the piano-score to follow online [my favourite resource IMSLP permits an instant free download] which illuminates the eponymous hero’s morally uplifting sacrifice and explains why quite so much of the work is simply glum! The interest, if interest there be, in this work is the moral compass of the age it reflects. Immediately preceding it on the disc is a work of which one might expect more; the Hochzeitspräludium dating from the composer’s maturity in 1924. This was written for his only son Franz’s wedding and was scored for two harmoniums. The Mrongovius duo play with exemplary dedication but it is hard not to find a pair of such instruments wheezing their way through motifs from Guntram, Rosenkavalier and Sinfonia Domestica anything but comical. I should say that the applause to all three works on this discs seems more dutiful than elsewhere in the set so perhaps I am not alone in my underwhelmed condition.
But from here on there little but delight to be found in this box. Disc 3 features the two horn concertos in piano reduction versions (Concerto No.2 in a fascinating horn and two piano version). It should be said that nowhere in this set does it make it clear if Strauss was responsible for the piano reductions but I think the assumption must be that he was. The soloist is Johannes Ritzkowsky who was the principal horn in the famous Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the time of these recordings. This is beautifully unaffected playing, by no means as big and fat-toned as some but perfectly matched to the chamber scale of the concert. The rarity here is another gem; the Andante in C AV86a – written when Strauss was 24, it is four minutes of the romantic song-without-words style where a melody seems to unfold and blossom with miraculous ease that Strauss could seemingly produce to order. The remainder of the disc is of early and minor piano music – all of passing interest and well played. Freed of their melodramatic shackles the Mrongovius Piano Duet show us just what a fine team they are in Disc 4. As piano/4 hands transcriptions of large works one assumes Strauss was tilting for the lucrative music-at-home market. The interest for the modern listener able to hear multiple versions of the works in their original ‘proper’ versions is the way the transcriptions reveal layers and elements in the works obscured by the original scoring. As might be expected this turns out to be case of gains and losses. In neither work can the piano replace the rich sonorities that Strauss achieves. The early Suite for Winds Op.4 suffers less and indeed the clarity of form and confident handling of contrapuntal writing comes across superbly. Aus Italien has long been one of my favourite early Strauss works. For all the forced good-humour of the closing “funiculi-funicula” there are other passages in the work of such beauty where the mature Strauss begins to emerge. I’m thinking of the second subject in the first movement or the beautiful theme at the heart of the third movement Am Strande von Sorrent. The Mrongovius are excellent in both these passages finding a gentle lyricism that allows the musical moment to be more intimate and touching than in its full orchestral dress. There is nothing they can do about the Grainger-esque ‘woggles’ Strauss employs in an attempt to emulate the shimmering orchestral effects of the original. Also, the bombastic (indeed) hollow sequences in the work do need a big orchestra to patch over the fact that the musical invention is rather thin there.
Disc 5 is a highlight. All recorded at a single concert it matches the two late violin fragments; an Allegretto from 1948 and Daphne-Etude for solo violin of 1945; against the two big bold early works, The Violin Concerto Op.8 of 1882 and the Sonata Op.18 of 1887. The pianist throughout is Wolfgang Sawallisch accompanying the excellent violinist Ernö Sebestyen. Again, at the time of the recording Sebestyen was concertmaster of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and he proves to be a player possessing a big personality and technique. I return to my opening comments about confidence and ambition. These are a pair of bravura works where the young composer tackles musical forms on a large scale. To my ear, in their respective genres they represent Strauss’s best early efforts. That neither have retained anything but a peripheral hold on the repertoire is probably down to the fact that they do not contain any of Strauss’s most memorable lyrical inventions. Elsewhere in the set it is hard to escape the feeling that the piano reduction is just that and in an age when it is easy to hear the full orchestral versions the value of such reductions outside the practice studio or conservatoire is limited. But the Violin Concerto as performed here convinces me there is a value especially as it allows one to hear the these two main works as being directly related musical cousins.
Another thought that bore in on me as I listened to a sequence of these early works is how Strauss seems to be trying on different musical coats. This is not a question of pastiche but rather of him adopting the style and form of other composers. So the Sonata here has a Brahmsian sweep, whilst the String Quartet on disc 6 is positively Classical in its aesthetic. Just occasionally you wonder if he was ticking off the forms and instrumental line-ups just so he could say he had written for it. Hence, with the exception of a second Piano Trio and Horn Concerto (and this latter is a late work) – everything here appears as a singleton. Disc 6, in musical terms, is a relative disappointment. The Cello Sonata is an exact contemporary of the Violin Concerto but seems more in the thrall of Brahms. Cellist Peter Wöpke, who is also a member of the Sinnhoffer Quartett is very fine and is ably accompanied again by Sawallisch but this piece stubbornly refuses to linger long in the memory. Likewise the String Trio Variations played in a studio recording by the Wiener Streichtrio. Ironically, given that this is one of the few non-live recordings in the set it is also one of the least satisfactory and the piece is forgettable. Most disappointing is the String Quartet in A Op.2. Given that Strauss was only 16 by that frame of reference it is pretty remarkable but pass on by if you are hoping for much more than talented pastiche. This is the work that seems to operate most on the level of technical exercise.
I enjoyed the solo piano works on Disc 7 more than I was expecting. Pianist Gitti Pirner performed this entire disc in a single concert programme and is very impressive in every respect. Again the Bavarian radio recording is pleasingly neutral and objective. The two sets of short pieces; 5 Klavierstücke Op.3 and the Stimmungsbilder Op.9 again show the influence of others – this time most clearly Schumann but in their modest pictorial scale they work very well as salon music. Running to over twenty minutes the Piano Sonata Op.5 is not exactly short but on the other hand is manages the question of its formal balance better than the all-but-contemporaneous String Quartet. Pirner returns to complete disc 8 with 4 eminently forgettable functional Marches. I am sure they fulfilled a need and function at the time but the interest now is simply one of completeness. The focus of this disc is the piano four-hand transcription of the Symphony No.2 in F minor Op.12. This is a work that positively benefits from the removal of the orchestral garb. When you compare orchestrally what Strauss achieved between the Op.12 here and the Op.16 of Aus Italien the earlier work pales. But in the literal black and white of the piano keyboard the gulf between the works narrows. It helps that the Mrongovius duo are so attuned and committed to the work too. For sure it might not be a forgotten masterpiece and still derivative but as a substantial 40 minute plus work the case is as well put here as I have ever heard.
This extensive survey is completed by a disc which in turn encompasses a late work, dances from Capriccio and the two very early Piano Trios which Strauss wrote when he was just 14. The two trios are remarkable for the facility they show. The players here are an ad-hoc group again led by Sawallisch. Violinist Anna Kandinskaya is very good but rather brusque, almost aggressive and her playing lacks the combination of charm and technique that marked out Sebestyen. Much of the time the cellist seems a relative onlooker with the bulk of the musical drama being played out between the violin and piano. Certainly the young Strauss had no qualms about giving his players fistfuls of notes. About the only time any technical fallibility is audible in these live performances is in fact the closing Allegro Vivace of the second trio where Sawallisch is only just about on top of the extremely virtuosic piano writing. By no means is it bad or reduces one’s pleasure in the performance but there is a definite sense of ‘seat-of-your-pants’ playing. The Capriccio dances are a bit of a disappointment – again I was probably hoping for too much from the master composer.
Given that Brilliant already have in their catalogue the magnificent Kempe/Dresden orchestral survey this complements that rather well. This is an excellent set and one that is unlikely to be superseded any time soon in either its completeness or all-round performing/technical quality. As ever with multi-disc sets there will be differing opinions on individual performances when compared to others but as a coherent consistent overview this establishes a very high standard. There is much music here that is at least interesting and certainly beautiful and appealing even if little – if any – is great. None is essential Strauss but that is no surprise given that his ‘instrument’ was the orchestra and the human voice. Accept those caveats and this set will give you great pleasure – but I won’t be returning to Enoch Arden any time soon.
CD 1: [57:49]
Two Pieces for Piano Quartet (1886) [11:14]
Two Pieces for Piano Quartet (1893) [7:49]
Piano Quartet in C minor Op.13 [37:25]
Wolfgang Sawallisch (piano); members of the Sinnhoffer-Quartett
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 17 October 1985
CD 2: [62:31]
Das Schloss am Meere (1899) [5:30]
Hochzeitspräludium (1924) [3:39]
Enoch Arden Op.38 (1897) [53:08]
The Mrongovius Duo; Elisabeth Woska (narrator)
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 18 June 1986
CD 3: [57:33]
Horn Concerto No.1 in E flat Op.111, 2 (1882-3) [16:11]
Horn Concerto No.2 in E flat2, 3 (1942) [18:09]
Andante in C for Horn & Piano1 ,2 (1888) [4:49]
Serenade in E flat Op.71 (solo piano version) (1881) [7:16]
Fugue for piano four-hands3 (1884) [6:00]
Gavotte for piano ‘Aus alter Zeit’1 (1879) [4:10]
Wolfgang Sawallisch1 (piano); Johannes Ritzkowsky2 (horn); Barton Weber & Gitti Pirner3 (pianos & piano four-hands)
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 22-23 March 1983 (Concerto No.2), 28 February 1985 (Concerto No.1), 21 May 1985 (Andante, Serenade & Gavotte), 20 December 1987 (Fugue)
CD 4: [67:59]
Suite for Winds Op.4 (version for piano four-hands) (1884) [24:29]
Aus Italien – Symphonic Fantasy Op.16 (version for piano four-hands) (1886) [42:18]
The Mrongovius Duo
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 2-4 December 1985
CD 5: [63:14]
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.8 (version for violin & piano) (1882) [29:46]
Allegretto in E (1948) [1:36]
‘Daphne’-Etude in G Op.82 for solo violin (1945) [1:43]
Violin Sonata in E flat Op.18 (1887) [30:06]
Wolfgang Sawallisch (piano); Ernö Sebestyen (violin)
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 28 February 1985
CD 6: [75:25]
Cello Sonata in F Op.61, 2 (1881-3) [26:38]
Romance in F1, 2 (1883) [7:38]
Variations on a Bavarian folk song ‘Das Dirndl is harb auf mi’3 (1882) [7:07]
Quartettsatz in E flat4 (1879) [1:39]
String Quartet in A Op. 24 (1880) [32:19]
Wolfgang Sawallisch1 (piano); Peter Wöpke2 (cello); Wiener Streichtrio3, Sinnhoffer-Quartett4
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 17 October 1985 (Sonata, Romance) 21 May 1988 (Quartets); Studio 3 BR Munich, Germany, 14 April 1988 (Trio)
CD 7: [68:42]
5 Klavierstücke Op.3 (1880-81) [24:06]
Stimmungsbilder Op.9 (1883-4) 18:58]
Piano Sonata in B minor Op.5 (1880-81) [24:19]
Gitti Pirner (piano)
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 21 May 1995
CD 8: [69:16]
Symphony No.2 in F minor Op.12 (version for piano four-hands) (1883-4) [42:43]
Serenade in E flat Op.7 (version for piano four-hands) (1881) [9:29]
4 Marches (1905-07) [16:35]
The Mrongovius Duo; Gitti Pirner (piano)
rec. Kleiner Konzertsaal, Gasteig, Munich, Germany, 3 December 1985 (Symphony & Serenade); 18 June 1986 (Marches)
CD 9: [73:38]
Capriccio1, 2, 3 Op.85 – Dances (1941) [6:01]
Piano Trio1, 2, 3 No.1 in A (1877-78) [15:18]
Romance1, 4 (1879) [8:18]
Romance1,5 (1883) [9:20]
Introduction, Theme and Variations1,6 (1878) [9:56]
Piano Trio No.2 in D1, 2, 3 (1878) [18:31]
Wolfgang Sawallisch1 (piano); Anna Kandinskaya2 (violin); Sebastian Hess3 (cello); Karl-Heinz Steffens4 (clarinet); Wen-Sinn Yang5 (cello);Johannes Ritzkowsky6 (horn)
rec. Hochschule fur Musik, Munich, Germany, 28 February 1997