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Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Sonatina (no.1) in F major, From an invalid’s workshop, AV135 [TrV288] [35:13]
Sonatina (no.2) in E flat major, Happy Workshop, AV143 [TrV291] [39:42]
Wind Projekt Ensemble/Patrizio Esposito
rec. 2014, Goethe Institute; Deutsche Schule, Rome

Richard Strauss’s father, Joseph, was a fabled horn player — described by Hans von Būlow as ‘the Joachim of the horn’ — which goes a long way towards explaining why Strauss’s writing for that instrument is so superb. You can justifiably extend that praise to his understanding of wind instruments generally, as is well demonstrated by his four works for wind ensemble – two written in his teens, two in his final years. It is the two late works that feature on this disc, the so-called ‘Sonatinas’; an odd choice of title for such large-scale pieces. Indeed, the second Sonatina has been published under the title of ‘Symphony’, which seems more appropriate for a work in four movements lasting around forty minutes. But ‘Sonatina’ does appear to have been Strauss’s own appellation for them both.

They were composed at an unhappy and stressful time for the old composer – eighty in 1944 – and his whole family. Richard and his wife Pauline had returned to their beautiful home in Garmisch in 1943 after a period living in their Vienna house. Their relief to be home again was tempered by the fact that their son’s wife Alice, who was Jewish, was placed under house-arrest. Strauss understandably immersed himself in his work, and flexed his dormant creative muscles with these two compositions. They neither reach nor aspire to the exalted artistic level of, say, Metamorphosen or the Four Last Songs, but are full of lovely things nonetheless.

The Sonatina no.1 has been more frequently performed and recorded than No.2, and it’s easy to see why – it’s simply a much better piece. Though both of them suffer from a degree of note-spinning — or ‘musical diarrhoea’ to put it less politely — the F major work is somewhat more tightly constructed, and more distinguished in its musical material.

What is beyond doubt is that the personality of the composer is present all through each of the works. The First Sonatina begins with a leisurely Allegro moderato, a gracefully rising melody mirrored by the wide-ranging descending phrase below. Both of these ideas are fully developed; the other main theme is a fine long-breathed melody first presented as a horn solo, taken up by other instruments as it blossoms. All of this is echt Strauss, as is the sublime spacing of the movement’s final chord, the whole ensemble resting on an F low down in the contra-bassoon. The middle movement, Romanze und Menuett, is much more serenade-like; a calmly expressive opening section, contrasting with a slightly more agitated minor key middle section.

The finale, Molto allegro, is mostly concerned with the lively ‘hunting’ theme presented at the very start, although there are several attractive subsidiary episodes. You can feel Strauss recovering his energy, as the theme passes through one key after the other, pushing the horns to ever greater gymnastics. This movement really takes some playing; so what of the performers?

The Wind Projekt Ensemble is an Italian outfit, founded ‘with the express aim of disseminating music for wind instruments’. The players are drawn from some of Italy’s top orchestras, and, although it has to be said that top quality wind playing is not normally thought of as a notable feature of Italian music-making, they are a very fine group. They play with a conductor, Patrizio Esposito, which is interesting in itself, as some of the ensembles who have recorded this repertoire manage without one. These include the Thaous Ensemble on K&K, and London Winds on Hyperion. For the latter, Michael Collins does ‘direct’ from the principal clarinet seat; but I suspect all such groups would own up to having at least one nominated leader of this kind.

The present ensemble are preferable to the Thaous — who give us only Sonatina no.1, coupled with the Mozart Gran Partita — who produce a very full orchestral sound, often somewhat shrill, although the individual playing is good. On the other hand, Wind Projekt are not quite the equal of the London Winds in terms of overall balance and blend, or of the warmth of their tone The London group are packed with real virtuosi, even if their horns are a bit over-enthusiastic at times — a frequent problem in Strauss’s music.

That said, I really enjoyed the Wind Projekt’s playing. Their love of the music is evident in every bar, and solo passages are turned with affection and natural musicianship. The recording is particularly well balanced, and everything, right down to that wonderful contra, can be heard clearly when necessary. Compared to the London Winds, their finale to the First Sonatina may lack that last ounce of panache, but they still do it justice.

I suggested above that in my view the Sonatina no.2 is not such a successful piece, and its first movement and finale are certainly prone to longueurs. However, Strauss devotees will be prepared to put up with that, as will lovers of the rich, multi-layered sound of large wind ensembles of this type.

In the end, my preference in this repertoire would be either the London Winds’ Hyperion issue mentioned above (CDA66731/2 from 1993) or the 1970-71 recordings by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble under Edo de Waart on Philips from 1999 (6500 097). The latter is a 2 CD set that contains the early wind pieces plus the Oboe Concerto with Heinz Holliger. That said, these Italians are very fine, and I am most certainly glad to have heard them in this splendid music.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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