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]
Wind Projekt Ensemble/Patrizio Esposito
rec. 2014, Goethe Institute; Deutsche Schule, Rome STRADIVARIUS STR37014 [74:59]
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
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.