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Richard Strauss and his Heroines
A film by Thomas von Steinaecker
German and English language with in English, French, Spanish and Korean
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9 (Documentary), 4:3 (Bonus); PCM Stereo
ARTHAUS 102181 DVD [Documentary: 52:00; Bonus: 23:00]

This is the kind of film that only gets made in anniversary years because there is so little to it as to be almost insubstantial. There is nothing remotely approaching new material or any new revelations, so that the film resembles nothing so much as a harmless souvenir. It’s basically a biography of Strauss that does its job through very broad brush strokes and a general approach. It has the seed of an idea — as you might guess from the title — to tell Strauss’s story through the women in his life, both on and off the stage. This doesn’t really go anywhere and certainly doesn’t say anything profound. Salome and Elektra, for example, are portrayed as two women who broke the feminine stereotypes of their day — stop the press! — and were given a radical harmonic language to go with it. Die Frau ohne Schatten, on the other hand, is seen as a musical step backwards in comparison with Strauss's fellow contemporaries, and Der Liebe der Danae is dismissed as being “without resonance”. The director repeatedly makes the point that Rosenkavalier is Strauss’s most popular opera and the Marschallin his most multi-faceted character for a female singer, but we needed no ghost to tell us that. There are also some rather bizarre omissions: nothing from Ariadne or Capriccio, to say nothing of Daphne, though there is a throwaway section on the Four Last Songs to bring the film to a rather peremptory conclusion.
There are brief talking heads from singers (Brigitte Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig and Renee Fleming), academics and randoms, including some inane waffle from Rufus Wainwright. There is frustratingly little, however, about the composer’s wife, Pauline. She is billed on the case as being “the primary focus” but there is really very little about her at all, and even less about Alice, his daughter in law. Strauss’s grandson, Christian, gives the odd vignette from the drawing room in Garmisch, but nothing earth-shattering, and various key things are skipped over, such as the composer’s relationship with the Nazis.
Ironically, it is the bonus feature that is most interesting, Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Till Eulenspiegel in 1951. It is remarkable how much colour and sparkle Furtwängler gets out of the orchestra with very little movement on the podium — he could teach some 21st century conductors a thing or two. It is fascinating watching him lead his colleagues through the score, despite the slightly grainy mono sound and picture. There is also some rather daft stuff of some dancers prancing around enacting parts of Till’s story, but this is more diverting than the additional material, a 6½ minute extract from Werner Jacobs’ 1949 film Ein leben für Musik. On the whole, though, this DVD has nothing to offer anyone who knows Strauss’s world already, though it might make a useful present for an interested beginner.
Simon Thompson

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