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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Metamorphosen [24:52]
Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra [24:19]
Stefan Schilli (oboe)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Mariss Jansons (concerto), Eugen Jochum
rec. 1959, 2006 (concerto), Herkulessaal, Munich

Metamorphosen is a large-scaled study for 23 solo strings, an extended three-part slow movement, where two Adagios enclose a more animated middle section. Written in the closing weeks of the Second World War, it represents Strausss confrontation with pain and apathy. It is widely held in some quarters that it is an elegy for the devastating Allied bombing of Dresden and Munich, though opinions differ on this. Commissioned by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, it was dedicated to him and to the Collegium Musicum, who premiered it on 25 January 1946 in the Z|rich Tonhalle.

Although these two recordings have been culled from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra archives, there is almost a fifty year gap between the two, with Metamorphosen being set down in 1959 in mono. Jochums is a dignified reading of great refinement. He structures this lengthy one movement work in an intelligent and logical way, and draws from the players the necessary pathos and tragic elements. He elicits great power and intensity in the climaxes. Yet, whilst the performance is interpretively fine, the dated mono sound does reveal some shortcomings in the aural perspective and renders the string tone monochrome. Muddy textures mar the definition in the louder passages where I detect some loss of clarity. For me, this is a work that benefits modern digital sound, and the 1983 recording with Karajan is the ideal. In stunning sound, the detail, transparency, colour and warmth that the Berlin players bring to this music, essential ingredients missing from the 1959 airing, set this recording apart. Kempe and the Dresden players offer a distinguished and compelling alternative.

In his later life, Strauss diverted his interest from the large orchestral canvasses and operas, scaling down his compositions; the Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra being a case in point. It was also premiered in 1946. Again, the Z|rich Tonhalle was the venue, but this time the players were the resident Tonhalle-Orchester and the conductor Volkmar Andreae, the dedicatees of the work. The oboist was Marcel Saillet. The composer had some misgivings about the concerto after its initial performance and revised the finale before publication.

The four-movement Concerto is a delightful, sunny work, and provides a suitable contrast to the dark and sombre complexion of the Metamorphosen. Stefan Schilli gives a masterful performance, having the stamina and breath-control to sustain the lengthy narratives. This is a piece that requires formidable skill and virtuosity from the soloist. Jansons is a sympathetic partner providing sensitive support. Quality of sound is first-class, with the Herkulessaal, Munich conferring a warm ambience.

This disc is worth investigating for the Concerto, but those wishing to savour the delights of the Metamorphosen need to look elsewhere.

Stephen Greenbank