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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Macbeth, op. 23 (1887-8) [20:38]
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier TrV227d (1945) [24:38]
Tod und Verklärung, op.24 (1888-1889) [25:38]
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. 2017/18, Singapore
BIS BIS-2342 SACD [71:57]

A potential feast for Strauss lovers here, with two of the most dramatic early tone-poems flanking ‘bleeding chunks’ from Der Rosenkavalier in the shape of the suite he made in 1945.

A word of warning; opus numbers can be misleading. Macbeth, op. 23, was in fact composed before Don Juan, op. 20. The latter as well as Tod und Verklärung op. 24, show a huge advance on Macbeth, in every aspect of their composition, other than, perhaps, orchestration.

So Macbeth is a disappointing experience if you’re expecting something of the quality of those works. A few years earlier, Strauss had conducted his F minor Symphony, op. 12, for Brahms. The great man told him to avoid ‘playing about with themes’, and that there were ‘too many themes based on a triad’. A little bit of pot-and-kettle here, because Brahms’s music is absolutely full of triadic themes; the openings of the Violin Concerto and the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies to mention but three.

I’m sure Strauss would have taken Brahms’s criticism to heart – he was far too clever not to – but something of those characteristics remains in Macbeth. It’s full of warlike trumpet fanfares (based on triads of course) and stormy violin writing built up in sequence. Lan Shui, with his Singapore players, does his best with the piece, but never manages quite to overcome an impression of adolescent posturing. The best thing in the work is the ending (I don’t mean that sarcastically!), which is daringly bleak, looking forward to the equivalent moment in Don Juan.
It is very strange to think that the Rosenkavalier suite (tracks 2 – 6) was made in 1945, and therefore at around the same time as that deeply tragic masterpiece, Metamorphosen. Strauss was not only in poor health, he was also, in those desperate post-war times, very short of cash. So the attractions of an arrangement – which would require little creative thought - of parts of his most celebrated work are not hard to understand. For me, however, passages such as the ‘presentation’ scene from Act 2, or of course the final trio, taken out of dramatic context and shorn of the human voice, seem tawdry ghosts of the real thing. This performance doesn’t help; from the ponderous opening onwards, there is simply not enough emotional heft in the playing to get us across those barriers. Mariss Jansons, in his 2010 recording for BR Klassik, is one who, with fine and sensitive playing from the Bavarian Radio SO, manages to capture some of the beauty and magic of the original.

The lack of a sufficiently rich string sound, so important in Strauss, is a major drawback in the final work on this disc, Strauss’s great tone poem Tod und Verklärung, first performed in Eisenach in 1890. It graphically describes the mortal struggles of one in his final hours, ending in death and the hope of a life thereafter. Strauss was essentially an atheist, wrote next to no sacred music, and this is the only major work in which he takes, as it were, a glance beyond the grave. Some have disliked it; Ernest Newman, the critic, complained that it was not music to which one would not want to die or awaken. "It is too spectacular, too brilliantly lit, too full of pageantry of a crowd; whereas this is a journey one must make very quietly, and alone". I believe this is missing the point – Strauss is describing the inner battle of those final hours, with the pain, the dreams, the moments of calm, and the reflections on earlier life. In fact Strauss himself, as he lay on his own deathbed many years later, told his daughter "It's a funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung", and he had already quoted its main theme in Im Abendrot, the final one of the Four Last Songs.
So, clearly a work that meant an enormous amount to its creator. And it is a massive challenge for conductor and orchestra, who must overcome its huge technical demands to present convincingly the great drama of life and death. It is an extraordinary achievement of the imagination for such a young composer (25), for it successfully addresses the same area of human experience as that addressed by far more mature composers – Elgar in Gerontius, or Mahler in the first movement of his ninth symphony.

This is a lukewarm performance, in which many of the great or important moments are simply not brought out with sufficient clarity. Examples - the first bassoon entry – track 7 around 0:15 - is all but inaudible; the defiant theme that appears in the brass around 6:20 is obscured by other orchestra detail; and the main theme of the whole piece, making its first, crucial appearance in the lower instruments around 8:00, is just not projected with enough clarity. Again, Lan Shui rises to the demands of the work’s conclusion; but as a whole, this performance is seriously underpowered, and one needs to turn to a recording such as Maazel’s famous one with the Vienna Philharmonic, ancient though it is, or Celibidache’s live recording with the Munich Philharmonic in 1979. These and some others draw one compellingly into the drama – I fear this Lan Shui recording, despite some good playing here and there, and a fine recording by BIS, fails to do that.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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