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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Josephslegende, op.63 (1914) [66:42]
Staatskapelle Weimar/Stefan Solyom
rec. CCN Weimarhalle, 3-4 June 2012
CPO 777 902-2 [66:42]

Strauss appears to have composed Josephslegende, his longest continuous piece for full orchestra, on something akin to autopilot. He complained that the subject matter "isn't at all up my alley, and when a thing bores me I have a hard time finding music for it." Given the composer's clear lack of enthusiasm - and one or two other rather more important things that were happening in Europe during that summer of 1914 - it was not too surprising that his ballet-pantomime, as it was termed, subsequently fell into near oblivion.

Nonetheless, in 1947, towards the end of his life, Strauss clearly felt that the score had merit enough to be worth reworking into an abbreviated version for reduced forces and, in his 150th anniversary year, it's been good to see that, with more high quality recordings on the market than ever before, the full 1914 version of Josephslegende at last appears to be coming into its own. It's true that several of my colleagues have, in an echo of the composer's own self-proclaimed boredom, exhibited a somewhat dismissive attitude to it. Peter Grahame Woolf, for instance, suggested that "anticipation . is quickly dashed by a feeling that one has heard it all before", while Colin Anderson (both Sinopoli, DG) thought that "this isn't music that will stand too many listens". However, for lovers of Strauss at his self-indulgent, full blown ripest, it really is hard to see how Josephslegende - preferably accompanied by a dish of tarte tatin smothered in clotted cream and accompanied by a few glasses of 6-puttonyos tokay - can be beaten.

This new account from the Staatskapelle Weimar under Stefan Solyom, their principal conductor since 2009, is in many respects an impressive one. This particular orchestra has a notable Strauss tradition. The composer himself was its deputy conductor for five years from 1889 and the Weimar players premiered not only his early opera Guntram but, rather more auspiciously, Don Juan, Macbeth and Death and Transfiguration.

It is hard to find fault with the orchestra's playing on this disc. They throw off the many complex virtuoso passages with great aplomb. Appropriately substantial weight is accorded to the score's frequent elements of high drama: sample, for instance, track 15, given the misleadingly anodyne description Potiphar makes the sign for the raising of the tables. Meanwhile, sequences of greater delicacy are equally skilfully and convincingly executed: track 17 Joseph's dream followed by track 18 Then the door in the portal to the right is opened and Potiphar's wife comes stealthily in. The exceptionally finely-balanced woodwinds are especially impressive throughout, as a quick sampling of track 11 - Dance of Joseph, second dance-figure: the leaps - demonstrates. In fact, all sections of the orchestra are so well integrated that it is impossible to pick out any particularly weak element.

Josephslegende has, if it is not going to sound over-the-top in its blatant excess, to be played with utter conviction and for all it is worth - and then some. Conductor Solyom's approach is at the rather restrained end of the spectrum. One might imagine him somewhat embarrassed by the score for he almost invariably elects to downplay the composer's more extreme effects and thus to lessen its overall impact.

Solyom's is surely a mistaken approach. This was, after all, not a piece originally written for the concert hall but for performance in a theatre, with all that that implies. Any account that is true to the composer's conception must therefore depict the full excess of the on-stage shenanigans - and what shenanigans they are. Co-scenarist Harry Graf Kessler indulged his Tom of Finland style sado-masochistic/homoerotic fantasies to the full with, among a great deal else, a troupe of virtually naked Turkish boxers, whip-brandishing black slaves and a couple of torturers who are, it appears, pretty nifty with the red-hot pokers. The detailed descriptive scenario that Strauss worked from now fills no fewer than thirteen closely-printed pages of one particular CD booklet, so there is no excuse for any conductor not to know what over-the-top action Strauss was depicting.

Josephslegende has, then, to be played for all it is worth - and then some. Come the final two tracks (Now appears an archangel in golden panoply and The heavens grow bright with a glow of dawn), I was expecting far more of an emotional catharsis. That is certainly what Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra deliver in spades in their very fine Channel Classics account recorded in 2007 (CCS SA 24507). It is, moreover, what the staged drama actually demands, as vividly demonstrated by the Vienna Philharmonic under Heinrich Hollreiser as they accompany the dancers in John Neumeier's staging of the ballet, filmed in 1977 but still looking - and sounding - remarkably fine (Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel Classica DVD 00440 073 4315 - see here for the finale). In this new account, though, the detached overall approach renders such emotional catharsis unnecessary - and so perhaps, in the end, we don't really miss it too much.

My colleague Rob Barnett concluded that this CPO version of Josephslegende was a "safe" choice. If that is what you are seeking, you need look no further. If, however, you consider that the work deserves more, then Ivan Fischer is still your man.

Rob Maynard

Previous review: Rob Barnett