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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Concert Overture in C minor [12:09]
Symphony in F minor, Op.12 [44:01]
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Hermann Bäumer
rec. 2017, Congresshalle Saarbrücken, Germany
CPO 555 290-2 [56:18]

Eclipsed by the great tone poems and concertos, not to mention the operas, few realise that Richard Strauss also wrote two symphonies, the second of which is recorded here along with a Concert Overture, both dating from 1883, the year Strauss’s great musical hero, Richard Wagner, died. The Overture never saw the light of day in Strauss’s time, but the Symphony was hugely successful and elicited some astonishingly effusive reviews following its New York premiere in December 1884.

The Concert Overture bursts into life with the kind of big, bold, pompous, self-satisfied grandeur of which Wagner was a past master, but the musical language seems more rooted in Brahms, Mendelssohn and Beethoven, which is hardly surprising since the composer’s father was determined that the 19-year-old Strauss should pay homage to the great masters of the past (there is even a brief Fugue, as if Bach, too, needed to be honoured in this panoply of great Germanic tradition). But despite a few momentary glances towards Wagner (notably a hint of the Flying Dutchman overture) and one or two scrunchy chords the work is dominated by the model of Brahms. Hermann Bäumer certainly does not spare the horses as he gallops through this score, in which the world-beating optimism of youth never for a moment flags. Formed in 2007 from the fusion of two orchestras – the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony and the Kaiserlautern Radio Orchestra – the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie produces a huge and corpulent sound in a recording which seems barely able to contain the grandiose spirit of the music.

Although the Symphony was begun at the same time as the Concert Overture, it took rather longer to complete, and in it we detect a lot more putative Strauss-isms, not least in the very opening where we encounter a figure which was famously to reappear in the Alpine Symphony some three decades later. Over the extended format of the symphony, Strauss often seemed unable to rein in his ideas, especially when it came to magnificent orchestral effects; it is as if without the discipline of a clearly defined programme – no matter how banal – the young Strauss had no real idea where he was going or what he wanted to say. While there is nothing here which reveals anything other than a highly-accomplished master of compositional technique, it often seems to lose a focus or sense of direction; we have a succession of dramatic and often beautiful moments, but rather randomly strung together.

Homage to Wagner is to be found in the last movement, with a references to both the Flying Dutchman and Das Rheingold, while Strauss honours his own father in the first movement with a gorgeous horn solo. But possibly the most important influence in this often ecstatic and unremittingly passionate work, is identified in Laurenz Lütterken’s booklet notes, where we read that Strauss “had a rapturous relationship with the (married) Jewish pianist, Dora Weis”. If this work is not an expression of the turbulent emotions of a young man passionately in love, I do not know what is.

All these emotional outpourings do become a little overwhelming, and Bäumer is perhaps inclined to enjoy the passionate outbursts rather too much for this performance to withstand repeated listening; you feel emotionally and aurally exhausted after it. Even the Mendelssohnian Scherzo, placed as the second movement and built around a strangely angular figure which opens the movement and later takes on an almost circus-like jauntiness, has far more in the way of passion and emotional weight than anything Mendelssohn could possibly have dreamt of writing, although the ending is a delightfully delicate.

The opulent, sweeping strings of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie pay ample justice to Strauss’s eloquent expression of deep contentment in the third movement, where again we find passages which were to find more fertile ground in his later tone poems sitting, not always easily, alongside great swathes of material which could easily have come from Brahms had he ever been so free and open with his expressive musical utterances. Indeed, the final movement brings to mind nothing other than the youthful exuberance of the Academic Festival Overture although here infused with the opulent orchestrate textures which were to become such a powerful feature in mature Strauss.
Marc Rochester

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