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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) 
Josephslegende, op.63, TrV 231 (1914) [58:16] 
Love scene from  Feuersnot, op.50, TrV 203 (1901) [5:40] 
Festmarsch, op.1, TrV 43 (1876) [6:17] 
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi 
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 18-19 September 2012; 24-bit/96 kHz 5.0-channel surround sound 
CHANDOS CHSA5120 [70:38]

A disc to prove that even for the most brilliant composers the art of composition is a fusion of perspiration and inspiration. Here, Richard Strauss does a lot of the former with precious little of the latter. The Josephslegende remains one of the least well-known of Strauss’s large-scale scores and for the simple reason that it is not very good by his own high standards. Running to nearly an hour in the current performance Strauss wrote for just about the largest orchestra he ever deployed. The score can be viewed on IMSLP and features; 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 3 oboes, heckelphone, 4 clarinets (inc. bass), 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, celesta, piano, organ, 4 harps, extended percussion (including wind machine and multiple sets of castanets) and expanded strings - 30 violins etc are stipulated. Having listened to the work many times over the years it is hard not to come to the conclusion that this vast orchestral edifice was an attempt to hide the paucity of the basic invention.
 
Given Neeme Järvi’s track record over the years of making the silkiest of musical purses from the least probable of tone deaf pig’s ears one would expect him to have been an ideal guide. Especially since he was back at the site of some of his earliest recording successes with his old colleagues from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in tandem with Chandos - the label that made his international name. Strange to relate then that this is an oddly under-engaged performance. The RSNO play very neatly and with commendable accuracy given the terrifying virtuosity of the score but surely this needs to be performed as though it were a towering masterpiece - penny-dreadfully glorious. What we have here feels like a pre-watershed sanitized suitable for all age-groups edition. In part the players and interpretation are not helped by the slightly distanced recording style that Chandos seems to have adopted for their SACD recordings. Given that I listened to this on a standard play-back system I strongly suspect I am missing a lot no matter how “fully compatible” the formats are meant to be.
 
Listened to in isolation there is nothing at all wrong with this performance - but when direct comparisons are made with others the fact that this lacks a feverishly beating heart is all too clear. If there is a version to convince that this work has some redeeming merit it is the one on DG from Giuseppe Sinopoli with the Dresden Staatskapelle. Take just the first musical gesture - an arching octave leap in the strings to a high A. Yes it is marked only f but this is a phrase that needs intensity and direction. Sinopoli and his ideally rich Dresdeners give it just that - the rather lightweight Scottish strings offer a technical exercise well executed and little more. The DG recording is considerably more forward than the Chandos but the inner activity is clearer in this new recording. Certainly, following the score on IMSLP one is able to hear much of the detail in this new recording but again I find that to be symptomatic of a performance which speaks more to the head than the heart. I would have bet a considerable amount on Järvi stirring up a musical storm but in fact the reverse is true. There will no doubt be some collectors who want to hear the brilliance of Strauss’s scoring in measured pastel shades rather than gaudy technicolour but that to my mind is to deny the essence of the work - for good or ill. I must reiterate that the playing of the RSNO is very fine and the ‘big’ climaxes - when listened to in isolation are impressive as are many of the more delicately scored passages. However, any direct like-for-like comparison finds this new version several notches below others in terms of the emotional drama invoked.
 
Much the same reaction occurred with the rather lovely Love-Scene music from Strauss’ “early” opera Feuersnot. I use the inverted commas advisedly - the Op. 50 listing shows that although it was just his second opera it is placed after all the famed symphonic poems and just four opus numbers - and years nearly - before Salome. No surprise at the total skill of the orchestral handling. The RSNO (and Järvi?) sound somewhat more engaged here but again any kind of direct comparison has them limping in behind the opposition. My own favourite version is that by Norman Del Mar - an underrated conductor to this day - leading the LPO on an old Classics For Pleasure disc. One assumes Nicholas Busch was leading the horn section at the time - whoever it is the glorious closing pages of this extended excerpt are glorious - the RSNO horns strangely inert in comparison. Del Mar’s handling of the entire excerpt is simply better paced and more convincing. Which leaves the Op. 1 Festmarsch - a work which proves that the 13 year old composer was no genius in the manner of a Korngold - a work for Strauss aficionados only.
 
A perfectly competent disc that in no way displaces pre-existing versions 

Nick Barnard 

See also review by Rob Maynard



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