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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28 (1895) [15:04]
Symphonia Domestica, op.53 (1904) [45:00]
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester/Sebastian Weigle
rec. Alte Oper Frankfurt, 15-16 January 2012 (op.53) and 26-27 May 2013 (op.28)
OEHMS CLASSICS OC889 [60:13]

With the proclaimed "dawn of world socialism" after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Europe's bourgeoisie came variously to be despised, derided or ultimately, in the Soviet Union at least, murdered. It became fashionable thereafter to mock the middle class lifestyle and its values in a manner that has persisted in some quarters to the present day.

Matters had been very different before the outbreak of the First World War. Then bourgeois values and moral standards had been revered and even monarchs such as Queen Victoria and King George V had ordered their domestic lives in patterns that would have been immediately familiar to that archetypal aspirant member of the Holloway middle class, Mr Pooter.

Richard Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica pays homage to the bourgeoisie of pre-war Wilhelmine Germany by depicting its domestic lifestyle in music. While not ostensibly following as ambitious or grandiose a scenario as that of Ein Heldenleben, it nevertheless exhibits a similarly purposeful narrative inexorability, as well as offering the composer an opportunity to indulge his propensity for very personal self-promotion. After all, a man who had said, of Ein Heldenleben, that "I don't see why I shouldn't write a symphony about myself: I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander", might well have made the - equally tongue-in-cheek? - assumption that even his ablutions and eating habits at the breakfast table would be of peculiar fascination to a wider public.

Sinfonia Domestica has never, however, achieved the level of popularity enjoyed by Ein Heldenleben with conductors, audiences or record producers. Thus, over the years, while MusicWeb International's own reviewers have considered no fewer than 30 different versions of Heldenleben (see here), only 11 of Domestica have crossed their desks (see here). Karajan, arguably the finest Strauss conductor in the second half of the twentieth century, never recorded it for his primary label Deutsche Grammophon. His biographer Richard Osborne only considers his 1973 EMI recording (7243 5 66107 2 9) worth mentioning because of an unfortunate technical glitch (Richard Osborne, Herbert von Karajan: a life in music [London, 1998], p. 580)

My own preference in Sinfonia Domestica has always been for the 1964 recording from the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell (Sony Classical SBK 53511), a performance so remarkable for its driven energy that one begins to suspect that Frau Strauss may have been crushing pep pills into the family's morning muesli. Leading an orchestra that he had trained to consistently outstanding levels of virtuosity, Szell concludes the work in a total overall time of 41:25 as well as clocking up the fastest speeds in each individual movement. In comparison, Clemens Krauss (1952) comes in at 42:51 overall, David Zinman (2002) at 43:20, both Fritz Reiner (1956) and Karajan (1973) at 43:45 and Rudolf Kempe (1972) at 43:59. Szell's propulsive account is, however, entirely appropriate as a depiction of the composer as an ambitious young family man, utterly convinced of his own talent as he strives energetically to establish his rightful place in the world.

At 45:00, this new account of Sinfonia Domestica from Sebastian Weigle is a little more leisurely than those competitors. It is, however, so engrossing an interpretation and so very beautifully played and finely recorded, that, despite my interpretative preference for Szell's brisker approach, I ultimately found it an equally convincing way of looking at the work. What comes across most is the strength of the control that Weigle exercises throughout. The balance that he establishes within the orchestra – aided by the very fine work of Oehms’ clearly expert engineering team - is quite simply superb and he is a master of orchestral colour. So much of the score that had quite escaped me before emerges in this recording that I gave up noting it down and just listened, spellbound for long stretches, to the exquisite and newly-revealed detail, compelled to listen anew to a piece that I thought I already knew well.

Quiet, reflective passages are lovingly teased out, though certainly not at the expense of the work’s overall architectural sweep: listen, to take just an early example, to track 2, 3:57-5:05, to get an idea of what I mean. The dynamics and orchestral balance are equally well judged, though, in Sinfonia Domestica’s more lively and propulsive sections, as you can hear in the closing pages (track 6, 9:10-end) where everything comes through the potentially opaque orchestral textures as clear as the proverbial bell.

The praise I have lavished on this Sinfonia Domestica applies equally to the accompanying recording of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. Other recordings sometimes seem to skate over Till on autopilot – the giveaway clue for me being when I realise that I’m listening with just half an ear. Just as in the more substantial work, Weigle and his players are so obviously and intensely focused on this quite revelatory performance that one is forced to listen afresh. As a result, Till emerges as a far more weighty and substantial piece than usual.

My colleague Dan Morgan gave the most enthusiastic welcome to Weigle's comparatively speedy and bracing account of Ein Heldenleben, the first volume of a continuing survey of Strauss's orchestral works (see here). I am pleased to report that this second volume most definitely maintains that very high standard. If you are looking for a refined and superbly performed version of Sinfonia Domestica in state-of-the-art sound, then you need not hesitate to buy this disc.

I still, however, hold a flame for that fifty years old Szell version. It is still available very cheaply and, with its different approach, would complement Weigle's account very well. It comes, moreover, with a first rate Cleveland/Szell performance of Tod und Verklärung and a strikingly exotic – and, indeed, at times ear-popping - version of the Dance of the seven veils from the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, together forming a very desirable collection.

Speaking of collections, isn't it time, now that so many other major conductors have been accorded the treatment, that we had a George Szell collected edition in a bargain-priced jumbo box or two? That would certainly be worth listening to – and not just for his Strauss.
 
Rob Maynard

Masterwork Index: Sinfonia Domestica ~~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche