Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Wind Sonatinas
No. 1 in F for 16 winds From an Invalid's Workshop (1943) [32:32]
No. 2 in E flat for 16 winds Happy Workshop (1944-5) [34:20]
Armonia Ensemble
rec. November 2010 (No. 1) and March-April 2012 (No. 2), Mendelssohn-Saal, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300576BC [66:52]
The Strauss Wind Sonatinas date from the great Indian Summer at the end of his life that also featured his late masterpieces such as Capriccio, Metamorphosen and the Second Horn Concerto. You can tell: the first movement of the first Sonatina, for example, seems to contain an explicit reference to the Countess's Moonlight music. There is also the sense of man drawing towards his end who is casting a nostalgic look over his life. The opening of No. 1, for example, has a sly, knowing sense that put me in mind of the prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos. In fact, a wry sense of humour seems to run through the whole disc, with a rather deliberately knowing feel, as though the works are directed at those on the inside who know Strauss's music already. In short, they might seem forbidding to some who are already a bit tired of Strauss's not undeveloped sense of self-worth. Many of the composer's substantial band of critics would question how he was able to write such merry, seemingly carefree music at a time when his home country was imploding around in him in the chaos of the Second World War.

I love these works, however. That wry sense of humour, and the elderly composer's unfailing instinct for sonic textures, makes them very appealing indeed. There is a beautiful resonance to the recording and lovely homogeneous blend to the sound that allows these passages to sing magnificently. There is a beautiful cantabile line to the slow movement of No. 1, for example, but also a hint of poignancy that is very touching. Its finale is a little more spiky, but still has beautiful interplay of the lines, and the songful elements are refracted through Strauss's playful musical personality.

No. 2 opens with syncopated fanfares that manage to be humorous at the same time, and it maintains an air of rippling good humour throughout. The second movement is a wry, tongue-in-cheek march, while the third is gruff, beginning as a slightly bumbling Minuet and then evolving into something more conversational with a lovely clarinet-led Trio. The finale then opens with a thoughtful horn theme that turns into an Allegro with a flute-led theme that begins as something sweet but then becomes transformed into something surprisingly noble.

The playing of the Armonia Ensemble is excellent throughout, skilful and characterful without drawing too much attention to itself for its own sake. As important, and as good, is the recorded sound. It features beautiful blend and a lovely sense of space around the instruments so that the music truly breathes, in more ways than one. The texture of the music is so appealing, and the playing so beautifully realised and balanced that I enjoyed this disc very much. It's well worth checking out.

Simon Thompson

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