RECORD OF THE MONTH
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Josephs-Legende - ballet pantomime op.63 (1914) [61:05]
Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper München/Robert Heger
rec. 1952, venue unspecified
ACANTA 233593 [61:05]
Lovers of Strauss’s music at its most lush and voluptuous have, over the years, unaccountably neglected Josephs-Legende. Its strange description as a “ballet pantomime” – suggesting, perhaps, something essentially frivolous or inconsequential – cannot have helped its cause. Just as likely to have deterred widespread interest before, say, the 1970s at the earliest would have been the perception that the way it treated its subject matter was, at the very least, morally questionable.
Josephs-Legende was ostensibly based on the biblical tale of young Joseph – he of the Technicolor Dream Coat – and his rectitude in overcoming sexual temptation. In reality, however, it provided its co-author, the German bon vivant and libertine Harry Graf Kessler (1868-1937) with an opportunity to share his scarcely-concealed S&M fantasies and his taste for blatantly homo-erotic subject matter. While Cecil B. De Mille could just about get away with that sort of sacred/secular titillation, Josephs-Legende indulges its psychosexual flights of fancy just a little too blatantly and, as a consequence, it paid the penalty in less liberal times than our own. A good flavour of its erotic sensibilities and of the score’s lyricism and full-blooded passion may be had in an extract from a Hamburg Ballet production here.
As far as I am aware, Mengelberg never touched Josephs-Legende and although Strauss’s long-time champion Beecham performed it several times in 1914, he seems not to have done so thereafter. Neither were there any recordings from such mid-century Strauss luminaries as Reiner, Szell, Böhm or Karajan. Rudolf Kempe, it is true, recorded the composer’s much-abbreviated later revision for reduced forces – Strauss called it a “symphonic fragment” – but one suspects that it was merely in order to complete his traversal of the composer’s orchestral canon.
Since then, however, our greater openness in exploring matters of sex and the concurrent refinement of recording technology have combined to allow Strauss’s densely complex and erotically driven score to re-emerge from the shadows. A real revival of interest on disc began in the year 2000 with a high profile Deutsche Grammophon recording from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli. That very fine account won entirely deserved plaudits from my MusicWeb International colleagues (also here and here). Seven years later came two more landmarks. The first was DG’s DVD re-release (00440 073 4315) of John Neumeier’s superb 1977 reworking of the ballet at the Vienna State Opera. The second was a new audio recording from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics CCS SA 24507), a colourfully episodic interpretation in state-of-the-art sound that may have established some sort of record by boasting no fewer than 70 individual tracking cues, each very carefully related to Kessler’s detailed stage directions, over a running time of just 64:30.
As those preliminary observations suggest, I was surprised to find that the full score had actually been recorded as long ago as the 1950s, arguably the twentieth century’s most uptight and superficially moralistic decade. Perhaps Strauss’s creation of the “symphonic fragment” in 1947 had temporarily renewed public interest in Josephs-Legende? Something, after all, must have acted as a catalyst for two new recordings after three decades of neglect. One of them, from Kurt Eichhorn, has fallen off the radar completely. The other, reissued on the disc under consideration here, was directed by Robert Heger (1896-1978), a largely overlooked figure now, though in Arthur Bloomfield, author of the always stimulating More than the notes, he evidently still has at least one enthusiastic champion.
Heger’s approach to Josephs-Legende is certainly anything but frivolous or inconsequential. The word “symphonic” is, in fact, entirely apt when applied to this serious and thoughtful account, conceived in a single grand sweep and given, in an appropriate symbolic - if rather unpractical - marketing decision, just one single cueing track on Acanta’s re-release. Quite simply, what we have here is a great performance, expertly directed and very well played. Heger, an experienced and convincing Strauss interpreter, has the full measure of the score.
At the same time the Munich players consistently display admirable brio and commitment, even though this was presumably less than familiar music. A long tradition of performing works by their “local” composer Strauss would have helped: after all, they had only relatively recently given the world premiere performances of both Friedenstag (1938) and Capriccio (1942). It would, however, be taxing credulity to hope that any of the 1952-vintage players could have recalled Strauss’s brief tenure as the Bavarian State Opera’s General Music Director nearly 60 years before (1994-1896).
The quality of sound on this disc is, though, worth its own moment of historical reminiscence, if not taking us quite as far back as the 1890s. When I was a small boy, the rudimentary sonic controls in domestic record players - remember those? - consisted of just a pair of small wheels, each calibrated from -5 to +5, one of which was marked “bass” and the other “treble”. Most of my 1950s contemporaries, presumably the grandparents of today’s kids with their ubiquitously annoying “boom boxes”, used to opt for maximum bass. I, on the other hand, preferred turning up the treble control so as to cut through the fug of sonic treacle like a Kasumi knife. This new disc’s opening few seconds, as the Bavarians’ massed violins screech out of the speakers with striking immediacy and presence, offer, therefore, a vivid evocation of my youth. I can easily imagine many other – probably younger - listeners making a grab for the remote control in an attempt to tame the impressively in-your-face (aka “raw and strident”) sound. Let me assure any such delicate souls that, within just a few moments, their ears will have successfully adjusted to the 1950s sound-world of the Dansette record player - and, after all, growing up with that did me no real long-term harm at all.
In fact, the only reservation that I have with this disc is Acanta’s decision to dispense altogether with any cueing points. In spite of loving the score, even I might concede that the allocation of 70 individual cues to the 2007 Budapest Festival Orchestra release was a little excessive - cue 55 lasts all of 18 seconds: “For a moment she holds the coat, absentmindedly and as though unconscious of it”. Depriving the listener of any means whatsoever of locating – even very roughly - a particular reference point in a major work of such musical complexity seems to me to be utterly cruel and perverse. On the other hand, I suppose, that is exactly how Harry Graf Kessler would have liked it.
A great performance, expertly directed and very well played. Heger is an experienced and convincing Strauss interpreter who has the full measure of the score.