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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Tanzsuite nach Klavierstücken von François Couperin, TrV 245 (1923) [29:34]
Divertimento aus Klavierstücken von François Couperin, Op. 86 (1940-41) [36:25]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. October 2019, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand
NAXOS 8.574217 [66:03]

Richard Strauss composed both of these works for ballet productions, but the first has been far more successful on disc for reasons I will explain below. Strauss was a Francophone, for example, he expropriated music from the French Baroque for Ariadne auf Naxos and Le bourgeois gentilhomme suite. Recasting Baroque music was in the air, after all, during those years with such works as Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, and Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin being popular examples in the style, if not always borrowing music from the earlier masters. Strauss’s Tanzsuite and Divertimento are suites of dances arranged from Couperin keyboard pieces, each containing eight such movements that are subdivided into separate dances—especially the later Divertimento.

The Dance Suite (Tanzsuite) is comprised of the following movements: Pavane, Courante, Carillon, Sarabande, Gavotte, Whirling Dance, Allemande, and March. The work is scored for a small orchestra two each of flutes, oboes (one doubling cor anglais), clarinets, bassoons, horns, a single trumpet and trombone, harp and strings. The percussion is very light, consisting of celesta, glockenspiel, and harpsichord. The successful performances are those that are straightforward and keep the textures light and clear. My favourite recording is by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Erich Leinsdorf now on the orchestra’s own label. Jun Märkl is mostly successful in not over-egging the pudding. His orchestra displays its wonderful winds remarkably well and one can appreciate the texture of the orchestration where nothing is obscured. However, there are a couple of instances where Märkl is less convincing. In the Carillon, with its combination of glockenspiel, celesta, harp, and harpsichord, when the main theme returns at the very end after a pause, he slows the tempo and his emphasis on this theme destroys the effect of the “music box,” just starting up again. Leinsdorf, as well as others I sampled, keeps the passage in tempo and played simply. However, one advantage Märkl has over Leinsdorf is performing the return of the main theme complete, whereas the latter omits the first part altogether. Actually, I do not miss the repetition because that is what I am used to hearing. The other movement I find disappointing is the final March. It is just too fast in the new performance and lacks the necessary lift and courtliness. Leinsdorf gets this better than anyone else I have heard, keeping it light and crisp and capturing the spirit of a march so well. His disc also has the best Le bourgeois gentilhomme suite I have heard as its companion.

The Divertimento has received far fewer recordings than the Dance Suite and, as far as I know, Märkl’s is the only account now readily available. I could not find any other samples on the web with which to compare. This work is not only longer, but its orchestration is heavier. In addition to the instrumentation of the earlier piece, it includes timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, and organ. While the Divertimento borrows some of the themes from the Dance Suite, the impression the work leaves is of rather too much of a good thing. It lacks the sparkle, the effervescence of the earlier composition. At the same time, it contains enough attractive music for an occasional hearing. The second movement is based on a musette with its heavy drone and Le Tic-toc-choc of the third movement is delightful with a catchy horn solo. However, other parts seem overdone, are loud and brassy and not dance-like. Simply, this is not a work from Strauss’s top drawer. Märkl and his New Zealanders do justice to the piece given the material with which they have to work.

This disc is worth considering for its pairing, if nothing else, to demonstrate Strauss’s different approaches to similar music. Couperin’s presence is felt more in the Dance Suite than in the later work, but this disc is currently the only way to experience the Divertimento if that is your cup of tea. Naxos provides adequate notes by Keith Anderson that detail the composer’s life, but shortchange one regarding the present works. Also a few of the timings are incorrect.

Leslie Wright

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