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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Symphonia domestica op.53 (1903) [43:02]
Metamorphosen AV142 (1945) [25:56]
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/François-Xavier Roth
rec. Konzerthaus Freiburg, 9-11 September 2014 (op.53) and 6 March 2015
SWR MUSIC SWR19021CD [68:58]

In a much-cited conversation with Sibelius that took place in October 1907, Mahler nailed his musical colours firmly to the mast. “A symphony", he declared, "must be like the world - it must contain everything”. Such an all-encompassing requirement suggests subliminally that a symphony ought primarily to address matters of grand and wide-ranging importance. But the word ‘everything’, of course, includes not just the big and important themes and issues of human existence but also the smallest and most apparently humdrum - and hence the most universal - aspects of everyday life. That, indeed, was something that Mahler's near contemporary Richard Strauss had attempted to demonstrate just a few years earlier.

Strauss was, of course, such a notably self-absorbed character that he famously declared, apropos Ein Heldenleben (1898), that "I don't see why I shouldn't write a symphony about myself: I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander". So delighted, in fact, was he by the success of that particular musical self-depiction that within just five years he had decided to portray not just himself but his somewhat abrasive wife Pauline, their infant son Franz (thereafter immortalised as "Bubi") and their daily domestic routine in the subsequent orchestral blockbuster Symphonia domestica.
Pompous contemporary critics gave the piece a hard time. They decried it for trivialising Art - with an upper-case A - by absurdly elevating the most banal daily tasks ("Parents' happiness... Childish play... Cradle song...") to matters worthy of serious musical consideration. Even today, Symphonia domestica - complex to play and conduct, costly to mount and less popular with audiences than, say, Ein Heldenleben or Also sprach Zarathustra - remains a relative rarity in the concert hall. New recorded versions are also hardly two a penny, so that when accounts do appear they often tend to do so as part of larger compendiums of reissued material. You'll find, for instance, notable performances in recent Strauss boxes from Clemens Krauss, Fritz Reiner, Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta that have joined other much lauded omnibus collections from David Zinman and the regularly recommended Rudolf Kempe [catalogue numbers are provided below].

When it comes to recent single-CD Sinfonia domestica releases, Roth's most obvious competitor is Sebastian Weigle who also conducts a German regional band, the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester. Both Roth and Weigle launched ongoing series of Strauss discs four years ago in anticipation of the composer's 150th birthday in 2014. Since then, Roth's discs on the Hännsler Classic/SWR Music label have been released slightly more sporadically, with volumes 1 and 2 appearing in 2013, volume 3 in 2014, volume 4 in 2015 and volume 5 in 2017. Weigle's discs - four so far - have been put out by the Oehms Classics label annually from 2013 onwards.

The way in which repertoire has been chosen for each series is interesting. Both Roth and Weigle offered Ein Heldenleben in their first volumes, which suggests that both Hännsler/SWR and Oehms wanted a popular big blockbuster up front to tempt buyers into their series from the beginning. As it stands now (April 2017), Roth has given us Ein Heldenleben and Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote and Macbeth (review), Also sprach Zarathustra and Aus Italien (review), Eine Alpensinfonie and Don Juan and now this Symphonia domestica and Metamorphosen . Roughly in parallel, Weigle's offerings have been Ein Heldenleben and Macbeth (review), Till Eulenspiegel and the Symphonia domestica (review), Don Juan and the F minor symphony (review) and Eine Alpinsinfonie.

It's a reasonable assumption that admiring purchasers who have already committed themselves to Roth's - or, for that matter, Weigle's - series will wish to continue adding new discs as they are released. Any review is likely, therefore, to be largely superfluous to their purchasing decision. But, for anyone else new to Roth the Straussian, what are the distinguishing features of his Sinfonia domestica?

Its outstanding interpretative characteristic is a relatively swift, driven approach. That was easily demonstrated when I undertook comparisons with a dozen other performances on my shelves. They were recordings from Clemens Krauss (1952, Decca 478 6493), Fritz Reiner (1956, RCA Red Seal 88883790552), George Szell (1964, Sony Classical SBK 53511), Rudolf Kempe (1972, EMI Classics 5 73614 2), Herbert von Karajan (1973, EMI Classics 7243 5 66107 2 9), Lorin Maazel (1983, DG 00289 479 3773), Zubin Mehta (1985, Sony Classical 88985328992), Lorin Maazel (1995, RCA Red Seal 88843015232), André Previn (1995, DG 449 188-2), David Zinman (2002, Arte Nova Classics 74321 98495 2), Antoni Wit (2007, Naxos 8.570895) and Sebastian Weigle (2012, Oehms Classics OC 889). Although Roth produces timings that are very much within the general mainstream in Sinfonia domestica's third (Wegenlied) and fifth (Finale) sections, in the case of first (Bewegt), second (Scherzo) and fourth (Adagio) he brings in the second-fastest of all those accounts: only Szell outstrips him in all three cases.

While, however, such brisk tempi may be somewhat unusual, they are certainly not necessarily inappropriate. Let's remember, after all, that in Strauss's own personal circumstances the word domestica reflected the reality of a youthful household that included a strong-willed, opinionated and garrulous wife and a boisterous infant. Chez Strauss was definitely no Mon repos. With that consideration in mind, it is Szell's fifty years old account, superbly played by his crack Cleveland Orchestra, that emerges as the most convincing of all: characterised by a lively wit and a no-nonsense, vigorously driven delivery, it yet gives full due to Strauss's densely lush orchestration and the complexities of his harmonic palette. François-Xavier Roth's interpretative approach often reminded me of Szell's and I can offer no higher praise than that.

Strauss's Metamorphosen is a work that cannot be divorced from the unique and terrible circumstances under which it was conceived and composed. Could it be, therefore, that those conductors who had lived through the Second World War's devastation - both physical and moral - subsequently exhibited some sort of special empathy with and insight into the piece? One of them in particular, Herbert von Karajan, delivered an intense 1971 recording that has since acquired classic status to the extent that it remains the version that other recordings often aspire to match and to which all of them must be compared (it forms, in its DG 447 422-2 incarnation, part of a cleverly-conceived triptych of "valedictory" Strauss that also includes Death and transfiguration and the Four last songs).

Karajan's distinctive way with Metamorphosen - in which it emerges as a grand showcase for the inimitably (over-?) lush sonority of the Berlin Philharmonic strings - is not, however, universally lauded. Nor is it the only way to approach the piece, for there is surely a place, too, for a cooler, less intense but more objective interpretation such as Roth's. Well conceived and convincingly delivered, this new recording may be a less distinctive one than his Sinfonia domestica but it well deserves consideration, nonetheless, on its own terms.

Anyone who is familiar with Strauss's orchestral works on disc will appreciate the importance of the recorded sound to the full success of any release. Densely scored works such as the Sinfonia domestica require the greatest sonic clarity if all the separate threads of the composer's intricately woven orchestral tapestries are to be fully appreciated. Fortunately, the recordings on this new disc have been expertly engineered. The sound in op.53 is generally warmer, less brightly in-your-face than that on Weigle's recording - or, indeed, Szell's - but many may prefer it that way. In Metamorphosen, on the other hand, the sound may be said to match conductor Roth's interpretation in that it is somewhat cooler than that accorded to Karajan. Once again, however, that may well be a something of a plus to those listeners appreciative of the newcomer's more emotionally detached conception.

On the day I was writing this review, 4 April 2017, music critic Neil Fisher of The Times newspaper gave a very positive review to a concert given by François-Xavier Roth and the London Symphony Orchestra at London's Barbican. In a neat play on words, he suggested in the course of it that François-Xavier Roth should be known henceforth as "Special FX". Whether that will prove to be the case or not, I cannot say. But what I can say is that this particular F-X disc is rather special.

Rob Maynard



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