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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Concerto No. 1 for horn and orchestra in E flat major, Op. 11 (1883) [16.40]
Serenade in E flat major for thirteen wind instruments, Op. 7 (1882) [8.25]
Sonatina No. 1 in F major for sixteen wind instruments, Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden (From an invalid’s workshop) (1943) [32.39]
Metamorphosen, study for twenty-three solo strings (1945) [28.05]
Robert Langbein (horn)
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 23 November 2014 (concerto); 15 May 2014, Semperoper, Dresden, Germany
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden – Vol. 44
PROFIL PH15016 [16:40 + 69:13]

This recording brings together four Richard Strauss works that were performed live in 2014 in two separate Semperoper concerts directed by principal conductor Christian Thielemann. Undeniably, the year 2014 was a significant year for the music of Strauss and its close association with the city of Dresden maintained over sixty years. In fact, nine out of fifteen of Strauss’ operas were given their world premières in Dresden together with several chamber and orchestral works whilst Eine Alpensinfonie was dedicated to the Staatskapelle Dresden. A grateful Strauss described Dresden as his “Eldorado for premières.” Of course, he also conducted works in the city and in 1883 the young Strauss played the piano at a Dresden performance of his own Cello Sonata. Some readers might recall a famous photograph of Richard Strauss (in long leather coat and driving cap) standing outside the Semperoper with soprano Elisabeth Rethberg.

Richard Strauss’ one hundred and fiftieth birthday anniversary was in 2014, which was also the year of the sixty-fifth anniversary of the composer’s death; Dresden seriously embraced the occasions and pulled out all the stops, notably by the Staatsoper Dresden staging two new productions of the operas Elektra and Arabella. In addition, the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Dresdner Philharmonie held several concert performances of Strauss orchestral works. Whilst in the city for the Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2014, I was able to report from several all-Strauss events. The Dresdner Philharmonie under Markus Poschner gave a programme of the Sextet from Capriccio, the Oboe Concerto and Ein Heldenleben at the Albertinum. At one of the series of Symphoniekonzerte (Orchestral concerts) Christian Thielemann conducted the Staatskapelle in a performance of Eine Alpensinfonie and soprano Anja Harteros singing Vier letzte Lieder and Rihm’s orchestration of Malven. Three days later, on the actual date of the anniversary of Strauss’ one hundred and fiftieth birthday, Thielemann and the Staatskapelle gave a ‘Gala Concert’ featuring three soprano soloists, Christine Goerke, Anja Harteros and Camilla Nylund, singing a programme of vocal excerpts interspersed with orchestral extracts from Strauss’ nine Dresden operas. Later that year on 23rd November 2014, Thielemann conducted an all-Strauss Symphoniekonzert in a programme comprising of Also sprach Zarathustra, scenes from Intermezzo and several orchestral songs sung by soprano Renée Fleming, and the Horn Concerto No. 1 played by principal horn Robert Langbein which is the performance contained here on the first CD of this Profil set.

Richard Strauss was the son of renowned horn player Franz Strauss, principal of the Hoforchester München. Given his exposure to the instrument, it’s no great surprise that Strauss Jr. should compose for the horn, although his two horn concertos were written some sixty years apart and in effect framed his compositional career. The Horn Concerto No. 1 is an early work from 1883 when the young Strauss was a mere eighteen-year-old. Originally scored for horn with piano accompaniment, it was premièred in Munich the same year by Bruno Hoyer. This version with orchestra was introduced by soloist Gustav Leinhos in 1885 at Meiningen. Franz Strauss never performed the Horn Concerto No. 1 in public and died some decades prior to the writing of the Horn Concerto No. 2. Franz Strauss’ refusal to perform the work was, it seems, based on the technical challenges of the instrument’s design at that time.

The Horn Concerto No. 1, which reminds me of the expressive Romantic world of Robert Schumann, has become one of the composer’s most frequently performed early works. Langbein is in remarkable form, giving a captivating and stylish performance, with superb intonation and rich glowing tone. In the opening Allegro, his impeccable playing displays the substantially heroic character of the writing together with an undertow of reflection. His expressive gift, together with impressively long held notes and phrases, shine through the enchanting, if melancholy, Andante, which was written in the manner of a Romanza, while the virtuosity of his steadfast technique and scrupulous musicianship is noticeable in the Finale: Allegro a Scherzo. The gratifying orchestral accompaniment from the Staatskapelle is simply top drawer. I recently singled out for praise a recording of the horn concerto by soloist William Caballero with Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck on Reference Recordings for its high quality, but it is surpassed by this masterful performance.

The second CD contains three Strauss works all recorded on 15th May 2014 at the fourth Aufführungsabend (Concert Evening) conducted by Christian Thielemann. Strauss stated that his public career commenced with Tonkünstler-Verein zu Dresden (Composer’s Society of Dresden) when the society in 1882 at the Three Ravens inn gave the first performance of his Serenade for thirteen wind instruments Op. 7, thereby establishing the Strauss performing tradition. Completed in 1881, when Strauss was only seventeen, the work is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, four horns and contrabassoon. Strauss was an honorary member of Tonkünstler-Verein zu Dresden which now operates as chamber music ensembles of the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Written some sixty-two years later than the Serenade, the Sonatina No. 1 in F major for sixteen wind instruments was introduced in Dresden for the celebrations to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Tonkünstler-Verein. Scored for two flutes, two oboes, three clarinets, basset horn, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon and four horns, the work was given by Strauss the subtitle Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden (From an invalid’s workshop) meant as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to his age and state of health. In both the Serenade and Sonatina No. 1, one senses Thielemann exercising great care and attention and deep concentration on the part of the Staatskapelle wind players. Elevated accomplishment, steadfast unity and immaculate preparation are core features of the playing. These colourful performances are highly convincing, communicating Strauss’ writing to memorable effect. Thielemann and his wind players are certainly a match for the finest recordings I know of these two works, namely, in the Serenade Op. 7, from players of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra directed by Alexei Ogrintchouk on BIS and, in the Sonatina No. 1 Op. 135, the Armonia Ensemble comprising of winds from the Leipzig Gewandhaus on Berlin Classics.

Strauss completed his Metamorphosen, a study for 23 solo strings, in 1945. One of Strauss’s most deeply felt works, it is a personal outpouring reflecting the destructive horrors of the world war. Premièred in January 1946 at Zurich, the score was first performed at Dresden in 1948 by the Staatskapelle under Joseph Keilberth. The score is fundamentally a large-scale lament - an Adagio with a contrasting central section marked Agitato. Bleak and despondent, this profoundly melancholy music feels like a depiction of a world in ruins with meagre shafts of light shining through the anguish. Under Thielemann, the impeccably prepared Staatskapelle excels in the masterly, autumnal string writing, producing a deeply felt and inspiring performance in absorbingly focused and intense sound. This live account has real merit and I will certainly return to it often; nevertheless, I have great regard for the two separate, mellow and deeply expressive Deutsche Grammophon recordings that Herbert von Karajan made with Berliner Philharmoniker in 1969 in the Französische Kirche, St. Moritz and in 1980 in the Philharmonie, Berlin. Of superior quality, too, is the weighty and intense 1961 performance by Otto Klemperer and Philharmonia Orchestra that he recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London on EMI.

These recordings of live concerts made in the renowned acoustic of the Semperoper, Dresden and broadcast on MDR Figaro, have great clarity, presence and balance. There is little extraneous noise during the performances but applause at the conclusion of all four works is included, except for the Serenade, Op. 7. The beautifully produced booklet contains several pertinent and exactingly researched essays which provide a stimulating and informative read, together with several interesting photographs. Understandably, the extremely short timing of the first CD will prove a drawback for some, especially since retailers are charging full double-CD price. Perhaps studio recordings of works such as the Horn Concerto No. 2, Duet Concertino or Sonatina No. 2 could have been included to increase the desirability of the set. In mitigation, the performance and sound quality of all four works is exceptional, decidedly maintaining the reputation of the Edition Staatskapelle Dresden series.  

These engaging and perceptive performances in this all-Richard Strauss set under Christian Thielemann are a memorable addition to a valuable series.

Michael Cookson



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