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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Duett-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon, string orchestra and harp (1947) [19:04]
Der Bürger als Edelmann (Le bourgeois gentilhomme), Suite for Orchestra, op.60 (1917) [34:49]
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Markus Poschner
rec. 25-28 August 2014, Auditorio Stelio Malo RSI, Lugano
Bonus tracks:
Strauss conducts Strauss – live radio concert by the Orchestra della Radio della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Richard Strauss (1947)
Live radio talk by Bernhard Paumgartner, before the concert [4:28]
Lieder for soprano and orchestra: Morgen op.27 no.4 [3:57]; Allerseelen, op.10 no.8 [3:13]; Ich trage meine Minne, op.32 no.1 [2:39]; Das Rosenband op.36 no. 1 [3:35]
Annette Brun (soprano)
Orchestra della Radio della Svizzera Italiana/Richard Strauss
rec. 11 June 1947, Studio Radiofonico del Campo Marzio
CPO 777 990-2 [71:45]

This is a delightful and rather special issue, containing as it does enjoyable performances of two lesser-known Strauss works, followed by the opportunity to hear the composer himself conducting four of his songs. This is one of the last recordings we have of him in performance and is especially poignant in that the occasion was also to celebrate his eighty-third birthday.

The Duett-Concertino — I’m using the Italian spelling as given in the disc’s details — is the least often heard of the three late works in concerto form that Strauss composed in the 1940s; the other two are the Horn Concerto no.2 and the Oboe Concerto. It’s not hard to see why this work has remained overshadowed by those two pieces. It is a rather diffident and understated little piece, composed by a man now ageing and in very indifferent health. It has great charm, though, and is of considerable significance, being the composer’s final work of any substance before the Four Last Songs. The special connection here is that it was written for the two wind principals of this very orchestra – or its direct predecessor – at the request of their then director of music at the Radio della Svizzera Italiana (the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland) Otmar Nussio.

In these late years, Strauss, disillusioned and devastated by the effects of the war, plunged himself back in time to rekindle the spirit of his greatest musical god, Mozart. Thus all three concertos have the classical profile of quick-slow-quick. The Duett-Concertino differs from the others in having a literary programme lurking in the background, namely a variation on the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story. The tranquil opening presents us with a quietly expressive clarinet solo; but the calm is soon interrupted by the entry of the bassoon in its gruff lower register – faint memories of Ravel’s Mother Goose here. The middle movement is the most magical part of the work with an exquisite bassoon solo against pianissimo strings. Finally, the two instruments join in a good-natured and jaunty final Rondo.

The soloists on this recording do a workmanlike job but you can’t escape the feeling that these are excellent orchestral musicians who lack the last ounce of solo presence. There is a fine recording of this work on Decca, in which the bassoon solo is characterised superbly by Kim Walker with Dimitri Ashkenazy, the clarinet soloist, as a worthy partner; father Vladimir conducts.

Of equal interest is another comparative rarity, the suite of incidental music Strauss wrote in 1917 for Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, here given its German title of Der Bürger als Edelmann. This was part of a project that Strauss and his librettist and collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal embarked on in 1912 but never managed to complete. The idea was to begin the performance with a shortened version of the play, with Strauss providing the incidental music; then, after a commedia dell’arte-inspired interlude, finish with the opera Ariadne auf Naxos. The opera was completed but the overall project was not, although Strauss did compose this rather attractive suite for the play. The music is an odd concoction. In some ways it’s the closest Strauss ever came to the skittish world of Les Six – unlikely bedfellows I know. In others it modestly recycles elements from earlier Strauss works, in particular Also Sprach Zarathustra, Rosenkavalier and Don Quixote. These are not direct quotations, just reminiscences, and the relevance of the last two of those works to the seventeenth century world of Molière’s comedy is clear enough. The playing of the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana under Markus Poschner is alert and stylish. The solo contributions of the leader Robert Kowalski are delivered with plenty of élan.

Then come the ‘bonus tracks’, recordings made in 1947, when Strauss was visiting Lugano in Switzerland. Track 13 is a talk in German by the conductor and musicologist Bernhard Paumgartner. Nothing remarkable here other than an obvious reverence for the old composer who must have seemed like a ghost from a bygone age. The next four tracks contain something very special. At the event, Strauss conducted, among other things, four of his orchestral songs. Not the "Last Four" because those were still to be written but some of his loveliest nonetheless, including — my personal favourite of all the songs — Morgen, together with Allerseelen, Ich trage meine Minne and Das Rosenband. Both are sung with real feeling by Annette Brun, a distinguished soprano of the day. Inevitably, the ear is drawn to the orchestral playing, which, despite the recording’s age and quality, seems inspired. The violin solos that play such a crucial part in three of these numbers are particularly heartfelt. This could be the very last recording we have of Strauss conducting, apart from the short extract from Act 2 of Der Rosenkavalier that exists on film so it is of great historical and musical interest.

The quality of the recording falls off steeply towards the end. As far as I can ascertain, it was taken direct from the radio – a microphone just sitting in front of the loudspeaker – so it’s remarkable in some ways that it is worth listening to at all. The engineers have done a fine job in preparing it. The disappointing part of this issue is that there is no information of that kind given. There is also nothing about Annette Brun – some sort of biographical note would surely have been of interest – and her name is not even mentioned on the outer case. I gather that Strauss conducted the early Serenade for Wind, op.7 in the same concert as well as the Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite. According to Michael Kennedy in his excellent work ‘Richard Strauss: man, musician, enigma’, recordings of those performances also exist, so I hope that CPO will get round to issuing those too at some point.

So, despite slightly dodgy presentation, this is a fascinating and enjoyable CD for all music-lovers but will also be of great historical significance for lovers of Richard Strauss.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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