Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen is a lengthy free fantasia
for twenty-three solo strings. The work is dominated by a haunting
theme beginning with four repeated notes, developed by Strauss
into a seemingly endless flow of melody. At its climax, the
repeated note theme is revealed to be a quotation from the slow
movement of the Eroica symphony. The reference to Beethoven’s
great funeral march makes it clear that Strauss is mourning
the destruction of so much of German culture and history in
the Second World War. The quotation has the same effect as the
Bach reference in the finale of Berg’s Violin Concerto, of providing
a universal frame for the particular loss the work commemorates.
In its thematic and emotional richness Metamorphosen
resembles another twentieth century string work that references
music from an earlier era, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on
a theme by Thomas Tallis. Where that piece is celebratory,
though, Strauss’s work has a much more elegiac and tragic character.
Clemens Krauss’s relationship with Richard Strauss is attested
by the photograph on the cover of the CD insert. In Krauss’s
capacity as head of the Berlin State Opera he became closely
associated with Strauss’s operas, directing several and providing
the libretto for Capriccio. The fact that this performance with
the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra strings dates from only eight
or nine years after Strauss’ death suggests its authenticity.
This recording (like the others on the disc) was sourced from
a radio broadcast via a Philips LP disc, and this provenance
makes for pretty average sonics, even with Andrew Rose’s expert
re-mastering. There is heavy surface noise right at the beginning,
although this wears off pretty quickly, and some of the strings
sound rather metallic, particularly at forte and above. The
acoustic is generally boxy, with a rather boomy bass. None of
this matters, however, once the performance gets under way.
The Bamberg strings play this music with tremendous conviction
and urgency, and Krauss keeps expert control of the pulse, managing
the transitions very adroitly.
Metamorphosen has received some high quality recordings
over the years. I got to know this work in John Barbirolli’s
version with the New Philharmonia, coupled with the Mahler Sixth
(available as a Great Recording of the Century – see review).
A more recent version is with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Simone Young (ABC Classics 476 6811). This is a
fine performance, coupled with thrilling accounts of the Wagner
Wesendonck Lieder and three Strauss lieder with Lisa
Gasteen. There is no doubt that this recording makes much more
comfortable listening than the earlier one. Nevertheless one
would not want to be without the Bamberg performance, which
is played as if it really mattered; no doubt in 1953 the enormous
destruction wrought by the war was still all too evident.
The disc includes Strauss’s arrangement of waltzes from Der
Rosenkavalier, and his seldom heard Divertimento,
based on harpsichord pieces by François Couperin, also played
by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Krauss. The Rosenkavalier
arrangement opens in bravura fashion, attacked in enthusiastic
style by the Bamberg orchestra. The woodwind parts are nicely
forward in the following section, and Krauss adroitly varies
the pacing until the slightly feverish gaiety of the finale.
The upper strings sound a bit constrained occasionally, and
there is a trace of distortion on some of the upper wind parts,
but the recording is much more comfortable than in Metamorphosen.
The Divertimento, Op. 86, is quite a lengthy work, running to
more than half an hour. Strauss’ arrangements of François Couperin’s
harpsichord pieces make no pretence at historical authenticity,
being rather a kind of faux-Rococo fantasy with occasional excursions
via Hollywood. Those who enjoy Canteloube’s Songs of the
Auvergne or Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances,
however, will have no problem with this work. After beginning
with a rather heavy French overture, Strauss’ arrangements have
a lightness of touch which preserves the liveliness and wit
of the originals, in spirit if not in sonority. In Les Fauvetts
Plaintives and the final pairing of Les Brimborions
- La Badine, the Baroque harmonies are spiced up with some
chromatic Straussian touches. The Bamberg Orchestra plays this
work with expertise and affection. But Metamorphosen
is a hard act to follow, and I am surprised that the works were
not presented in the reverse order - although that is easily
achieved with the program feature of one’s CD player. Perhaps
Pristine wanted to finish with the best recording, and Rosenkavalier
and the Serenade are certainly much easier to listen
to, with a rather wetter-sounding acoustic than Metamorphosen.
The performances on this disc have real authority and total
commitment, and more than make up for the rather variable sound