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Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen
A survey of the discography by Ralph Moore

Please excuse my alliterative excess if I characterise Metamorphosen as the most magnetic, mesmeric and melancholy music I know. Strauss had begun making sketches for it as early as 1941 but the spur to his resumption of the work was supposedly a visit to Munich in the company of Clemens Krauss and Wolfgang Schneiderhan, and seeing the destruction all around him, including the ruins of the Bayerische Staatsoper, which had been bombed in 1943 and had previously seen so many performances of his operas, including the premiere of Capriccio in 1942. The Vienna State Opera, too, was destroyed in March 1945, prompting Strauss to put the finishing touches to the manuscript, by which time it was clear that Nazi Germany was defeated; a fortnight after its completion in April 1945, Hitler committed suicide. It is often paired on record with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, but Metamorphosen is far more elegiac than Schoenberg’s ecstatic celebration of love and forgiveness, being a darker, sadder reflection by an old man who had seen much of his familiar world crumble about him. The end of the score bears the postscript “In memoriam!” and clearly Strauss felt that his life was drawing to a close at the end of an era.

Although it is scored for 23 Strings, Strauss famously sanctioned Karajan’s use of 36 with the blessing, “If he’s got the strings, let him use them!” and Karajan always performed it with that number which accounts for the extraordinary lushness of his three recordings. The work marks a new departure in the direction of Strauss’ genius: technically, the score is remarkably complex, has no key signatures but operates chromatically and contains contrapuntal sections which are taxing for even the most accomplished players; emotionally, too, we enter new territory, in that melancholy, nostalgia and regret are not typical Straussian – although obviously such ideas as the passing of youth and time, and the inevitability of loss and destruction had been touched on in the Marschallin’s musings in Der Rosenkavalier, but most of his operas and tone poems end on a note of triumph and affirmation. The swelling phrases of Metamorphosen are weighed down with grief and sorrow, yet the bitter-sweet harmonies, flowing melodies and major-key passages afford their own poignant consolation. It is clear that Strauss’ conviction that mankind’s achievement in art, literature and music could transcend its barbarism and inhumanity had been severely shaken, but the snatches of themes from his earlier works and fragments from Mozart and Beethoven recall and affirm that belief, and sections of the music convey a kind of escapist rapture from a contemporary world encapsulated in Strauss’ diary entry written a few days after the completion of Metamorphosen:

“The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”

In the light of that declaration and what we know of him as a human being, how anyone can accuse Strauss of being a Nazi-sympathise is beyond me; it is true that he was initially favourable towards Hitler for his championing of German culture, but that admiration soon soured, especially when his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren were under threat. He was, in any case, like many artists, essentially apolitical in his fanatical attachment to his calling; as Goebbels said, he was “like a child” - though whether that is any excuse is debatable.

The title itself is enigmatic but it would seem that Strauss found its origins in the works of Goethe, who was also a natural scientist, fascinated by the changes evinced by growing things. The implication is that Strauss, too, saw music as something constantly evolving; certainly throughout his career he continued to push the limits of tonal and harmonic invention as is evident in this late work.

There are over 90 recordings; I cannot hope to be comprehensive but have chosen below what I hope is a representative selection of twenty-four, two of which are arrangements for string septet. Strauss’ short score dated March 1945 was rediscovered in Switzerland in 1990 and from that Rudolf Leopold made that septet version published in 1996.

Many of the recordings may be sampled on YouTube. Some reviews below have been adapted from those previously posted on Amazon or MusicWeb.
 
The Recordings:
 
Wilhelm Furtwängler/Berliner Philharmoniker, 1947, History, live, mono [23:07]

Typically ardent and driven, this is four minutes faster than the standard timing of around 27: 00. The sound is inadequate by modern standards but excellent for its era and certainly good enough for us to hear, through the coughing and scratchy, distorted acoustics, the searing concentration of the playing here. Furtwängler directs surging waves of sound, grading dynamics meticulously, leading the listener through this lament for a lost world with heart-breaking intensity. This can never be a first recommendation – but devotees of this work should hear it.

Clemens Krauss/Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, 1953, Pristine Classical, mono [27:40]

We may surely rely upon Strauss’ friend and protégé Clemens Krauss to have executed this music faithfully and this is a cumulatively powerful, inexorable reading which is played with heart and soul by the newly reformed touring orchestra. There is nothing to object to here apart from the distant recording acoustic, yet it remains eminently listenable.

Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra, 1961, EMI, stereo [28:06]

This begins in a very serious, heavy manner – not that such an affect is inappropriate for this music. The sound is excellent for its era and balances among the instrumental groups are excellent. The Philharmonia was of course full of virtuoso musicians and the playing cannot be faulted; there is a depth to their tone which is most seductive, although vibrato is prominent. However, although it is “architecturally solid”, it lacks emotion and does not match Karajan and Sinopoli in intensity, especially at climaxes; I find Klemperer’s phrasing to be rather stoical and unimaginative and his tempi sedate, such that the conclusion lacks tension. While this still satisfies in some ways, it is not among my primary choices.

* * * *

I consider all three of Karajan’s recordings here together, as his conception hardly changed as he moved from mono 78 to stereo LP to digital modernity over thirty-three years.

Herbert von Karajan/Wiener Philharmoniker, 1947 EMI, mono [26:22]

This is somewhat better recorded than Furtwängler’s live performance from the same year, despite there being more audible “swish”, and it sets the tone for all three of Karajan’s fine, flowing accounts, being less intense and biting and more insistent upon sustaining melodic continuity via the implementation of seamless legato. Never once does Karajan let up in maintaining a sense of momentum – there are no “paragraphs” here. However, I do not for one moment mean that to imply that Karajan’s interpretation lacks clout; the climax around seventeen minutes into the piece is enormously weighty - despite the crackle.

Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker, 1969, DG, stereo [27:30]

This was the recording whereby many of the older generation today came to know this piece and it has attained classic status. No matter how slowly Karajan begins, somehow, he infuses the music with a sense of forward propulsion and tension such that the listener is gripped – or at least, I am. The sweetness of the lead violin – presumably Michel Schwalbé - is almost unbearably poignant. We are enveloped in the rich swathes of sound generated by the BPO in its prime - and listen to the drive Karajan engenders at the 15-minute-point onwards – stunning. This is a performance that engages like no other except perhaps Sinopoli and Barbirolli – and even they yield to Karajan’s mastery.
 
Herbert von Karajan/Berliner Philharmoniker, 1980, DG, digital [26:11]

Is the digital recording much different or better? Certainly the sound, as you might expect, is more vivid: there is an extra layer of depth and even more immediacy here. It is also – unusually, for an aging conductor – marginally more urgent – well over a minute faster – which, admittedly, isn’t so significant but even so. The clarity of this digital version will sway many, but somehow I remain emotionally attached to the 1969 recording; for me, I has an extra spiritual dimension. In the end, however, it really, it does not matter which you choose - both are superlative.

* * * *

Sir John Barbirolli/New Philharmonia Orchestra, 1967 EMI/Warner, stereo [27:19]

This is a wonderfully indulgent performance, complete with the occasional audible groan from Sir John. It is rather different from Klemperer’s steady, controlled progress; every phrase is lovingly sculpted with rubato a-plenty and a degree of management which might strike some as mannered. If your taste lies in that direction, you will love it; some might prefer a more classical restraint. Strangely, it seems slower than Klemperer but is in fact a minute faster. As with Klemp’s EMI recording, made with the same orchestra re-born, the sound is splendid but has more air around it here and I hear far greater rapture in the phrasing. I love it.

Sir Neville Marriner/Academy of St Martin in the Fields, 1968, Decca, stereo [26:06]
 
There wasn’t much within their scope that Sir Neville and the ASMF did not record and this is, as ever, so beautifully played, so richly intoned, and performed with such passion and precision that I find it compelling. It was recorded at a time when Marriner himself was still playing and directing from the front desk, and the first violin is very prominent. Among the ranks would have featured artists such as Iona Brown; this was a crack outfit and they are given Decca’s finest sound, which really comes to the fore when the orchestra leans into the music and cranks up the volume nine minutes in. Just occasionally the ASMF could come across as slick but not here - this pulsates with fervour and the conclusion is all bleak misery. Flawless.

Rudolf Kempe/Staatskapelle Dresden, 1970, EMI, stereo [25:14]
 
Another relatively swift account, this has long been a favourite with many – which is hardly surprising given the pedigree of the orchestra and conductor concerned. Kempe had a gift for clarifying orchestral lines and textures and this is indeed a pellucid rendering, with a depth of sound to rival that of the VPO and the BPO. Again, typically of Kempe, there is rather more refinement and even delicacy in how he asks his performers to negotiate arpeggios and ornaments; this has a marginally airier feeling to it than Karajan and Previn, for example, but there is such drive and passion in the more urgent passages – which are sometimes, to my ears, taken just a little too fast for their melancholy too register, but I quibble; this is a great recording.

André Previn/Wiener Philharmoniker, 1986, Classic FM/Decca, digital [27:00]

This a little lugubrious, dreamy and Romantic for my taste; I like a bit more edge, as it seems rather nerveless, swimming in beauty, but I can easily succumb to such superb playing – it is absolutely sumptuous. Even though I was aware of his Also sprach Zarathustra, I had previously overlooked Previn’s pre-eminence in Strauss tone poems. If your taste lies in this ultra-Romantic direction, this could be for you; I like just a bit more starch. Sinopoli is similarly slow – even slower – and the playing of the Staatskapelle is just as opulent as the VPO but there is a deeper, bleaker intensity to his reading than we find here. Having said that, I am drawn back to this because it is so beautiful!

Sir Neville Marriner/Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, 1987, Capriccio, digital [24:24]

So good was Marriner’s first studio recording that I wonder why he felt the need to return to this piece but of course it is with an entirely different band in another country nearly twenty years later, the pairing is different and he is “only” conducting this time rather than playing first violin – so why not?

However, I find the recorded sound a little tubby and although this is nearly two minutes faster, there is a certain deliberateness to the phrasing here which appeals to me less than the freer-flowing ASMF recording. There is less animation about this account, instrumental lines are not as clearly delineated and climactic points are not as rapturous. It’s still good but it doesn’t really take off and I return to the earlier recording for Marriner at his best.

William Boughton/English String Orchestra, 1987, Nimbus, digital [26:00]

Is it really being picky to complain that the very first thing you hear is a slight miscue on entry? Leaving that aside, the recording acoustic here is of the over-reverberant, village hall type but the ear soon adjusts and again, I could be accused of nit-picking. Tempi are good, phrasing is generous, the counterpart is accurately negotiated, climaxes are lush and textures are well integrated without obscuring lines – although there are passages (e.g. around 18 minutes in) when for a few minutes the playing seems oddly deliberate and just occasionally intonation is an issue (e.g. the slip at 19:06). This is another fine recording which is not necessarily a first choice, as in this field even otherwise negligible flaws can be discriminators and I am not keen on the engineering here, which makes the sound-picture seem cluttered.
 
Richard Stamp/Academy of London, 1989, Virgin Classics, digital [25:48]

As with my first experience of the Pople recording below, my first encounter with this recording bowled me over. While it does not shake my adherence to Karajan’s masterly recordings, they are a different experience; this is smaller scale but almost unbearably poignant and still one to stand alongside those by Karajan. If you do not picture Strauss wandering heartbroken amongst the ruins of the Vienna Opera House, thinking of his past triumphs staged in that edifice shattered by allied bombs – even if that didn’t actually happen - and reliving the ecstasy of those premières conjured up by the soaring middle section only to spiral down into despair, the music isn't working - and here it most certainly is. The final five minutes are devastatingly awful in their stark beauty. The acoustic is just right, too - ample and faintly reverberant to suggest desolate space. This is more mainstream than Pople in that it emphasises tonal effulgence over tension but it works so well and there is tremendous depth of sound here. A wonderful recording.
 
Ross Pople/London Festival Orchestra, 1990, ASV Quicksilva, digital [24:46]

Sometimes a truly great recording comes out of nowhere. I fell in love with the grainy, trenchant sound of this the first moment I heard it; there is something raw and visceral about Ross Pople’s direction here which makes this special. He does not produce the lush, velvety sound of Karajan – he has leaner, clearer orchestral textures, as he does not augment the strings – but he brings the same passion and intensity to his conducting which sweeps the listener away on surging waves of melody. Just try the pause at 19:29 - the sense of suspended tragedy is stunning. I have no idea who the lead violinist is but s/he is a virtuoso of the first rank.

The digital sound here is superb, with a lovely balance between the deep, resonant bass lines and violins which swoop and soar stratospherically without harshness. I don’t know if the huge variation if dynamics here is the result of engineering jiggery-pokery but I don’t care, the effect is magical and I find it overwhelming.

Note: this CD is long deleted but it is still possible to source copies.

Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony, 1992, Decca, digital [28:55]

This is my third encounter with Blomstedt’s Strauss and I might as well resign myself to the fact that, as much as I like him in other things, I don’t think his forte lies in this composer, where I find him stodgy and lacklustre. Yes, individual string lines are elegantly shaped and revealed but that is at the expense of tension and momentum; twenty-nine minutes played this way simply seems too long yet Sinopoli (see next) not only gets away with the same timing but succeeds triumphantly.

It is nonetheless beautifully played and Blomstedt’s deliberation pays off much better towards the end where stolidity is replaced by massive intensity underpinned by a great bass section intoning the quotation from the Funeral March of Beethoven’s Eroica. That conclusion could redeem this for some but I retain other favourites.

Giuseppe Sinopoli/Staatskapelle Dresden, 1994, DG [Presto], digital [28:40]

The rendering of this, the lushest and most affecting of bitter-sweet threnodies, might first strike the ear as a little ponderous but Sinopoli knows what he is doing and maintains such concentration that the whole thing builds inexorably over a generous 29 minutes to a shattering climax. Sample the reprise of the theme derived from the Eroica fragment at 16:44 to hear the most extraordinarily homogeneous and vibrant unison playing - and the coda is heart-rending in its stately beauty.

Of paramount prominence is the sheer, glorious depth of sonority of both the Dresdeners' playing and the recorded sound; it is astonishingly rich and warm. I would not say that they outshine Karajan’s BPO but they certainly match them.

There are none of the quirks and eccentricities that sometimes mar - or enhance, depending on your response - Sinopoli's interpretations; his adherence to the score is scrupulous and his control over dynamics is especially telling - especially as the ambiance of the Lucaskirche is such a grateful medium when it comes to capturing nuances of sound.

This unashamedly takes the Big Band route and leaving aside those recordings which cultivate a more chamber-like approach; its sonic and emotional impact is equalled only Karajan and Barbirolli. (It happens to be paired with a superb Bruckner Eighth Symphony - another bonus.)

Brandis Quartett with Walter Küssner, Dietmar Schwalke & Rainer Zepperitz, 1998, Nimbus, digital [23:57]
(NB: arr. For Septet by Rudolph Leopold)
 
This string septet arrangement of Metamorphosen comes as part of what is, for me, a dream recital, with the sextet from Strauss’ Capriccio and Verklärte Nacht arranged for sextet. It is, of course, something of a wrench to come from the full version to this leaner, starker incarnation, but the compensation is the crystalline clarity of a score which is so dense and complex that sometimes the ear has a hard time picking out what is going on, but that is made easier by this instrumental reduction.

The Brandis Quartett are of course a known quantity and the surge and lilt of the playing of this augmented group are simply captivating. The balances and interplay among them are flawless; I especially love the way the heft and grunt of the double bass underpins proceedings. Producing an account of 24 minutes’ duration, nobody here is hanging about; this is an interpretation which favours the sense of a desperate striving after peace and reconciliation over numbed, passive reflection. There is a special immediacy to this recording; time flashes by while you are listening to it in just the way that it does not with, for example, Klemperer or Blomstedt. Furthermore, Nimbus made a much better job of the engineering of this one than their release with William Boughton a decade before. To employ an oxymoron, this is an essential supplement to the full orchestral version.

Walter Weller/BBC Symphony Orchestra 2002 BBC Music Magazine, digital [25:30]
 
As I remarked in my survey of Eine Alpensinfonie, there are some good things among these CDs which come with the BBC Music Magazine and here is another. The BBC strings play with dark, luscious tone and hardly need fear comparison with other supposedly more prestigious outfits. Weller’s pace is steady and inexorable but this actually is a performance on the brisk side and by about ten minutes in you realise that he is been very gradually increasing torque and tension; there is no unnecessary dragging or pulling about of phrases and but the dynamics are very carefully graded. I recall that Weller is good with symphonic poems; he also made a fine recording of Rachmaninov’s The Rock.

The recording level is rather low, so turn it up. Cheap copies are readily available on eBay (which is where I bought mine); it’s a bargain.
 
Antoni Wit/Weimar Staatskapelle, 2005, Naxos, digital [28:18]

This was reviewed back in 2010 for MWI by William Headley who observed that “the conductor seems anxious to avoid excess, and this slight restraint makes for a performance somewhat lacking in intensity” and echoed my attachment to Barbirolli and Sinopoli, whereas Nick Barnard in his review declared that “this new version is worthy of being considered up there with the very best.” I agree that it has obvious merits but in the context of so many superlative recordings considered in this survey, I tend to find it rather cautious and sedate, and would pass over it in favour of more animated versions, just as I found the Sinfonia domestica with which it is paired uninspired. However, this reviewing lark being a very subjective business, I suggest that you drop in on the YouTube upload to check your own reaction.

Markus Däunert/Aldeburgh Strings, 2015, Linn, digital [27:15]
 
The technical quality of the playing here is assured by the provenance of the musicians assembled for the recording. They are essentially two “super-group” of strings and wind-players from the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme conducted respectively by distinguished violinist Markus Däunert and celebrated oboist Nicholas Daniel.

Strauss’ searing threnody for a destroyed culture is beautifully played here but also oddly sedate and nerveless, without the surging intensity, cumulative tension and massive sweep which characterises the greatest versions by such as Karajan, or Richard Stamp with the Academy of London. In the review above of the Stamp recording on Virgin Classics - happily coupled with nine of Strauss’ most popular Lieder exquisitely sung by Gundula Janowitz - I wrote of the unbearable poignancy of Strauss’s despair at the destruction of the great German opera houses, all of which had been obliterated in the relentless Allied air-raids; Strauss’ wrote in his diary “2000 years of cultural evolution had met its doom, and irreplaceable monuments of architecture and works of art were destroyed by a criminal soldiery.” Thus, this music needs to hit home; here, it instead unfolds gently and elegantly and is ultimately too restrained, leaving the listener largely unmoved by what is surely one of the most profoundly anguished laments in all music. It needs the opulence and drama which Karajan and Stamp bring to the score – and even if Karajan did “cheat” to enhance its impact.

François-Xavier Roth/SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, 2015, OEMS digital [25:56]

Rob Maynard reviewed this in 2017, giving it a qualified welcome as a “a cooler, less intense but more objective interpretation” rather different in character from the “full-fat” versions of such as those by Karajan and Sinopoli. I fully agree and refer you to his review as any additions of my own would be otiose. My own preference is for something richer.

Esa-Pekka Salonen/Sinfonia Grange au Lac, 2018, Alpha, digital [28:43]

The opening here is sluggish and too closely recorded, and there are intonation and ensemble problems. This continues for some minutes and really doesn’t work; it is devoid of inner tension and momentum until matters pick up around seven or eight minutes into the work, when the sound gels, a new lusciousness kicks in and the performance is transformed. This makes it very much a performance of two…well, if not halves, at least sections and I enjoy very much more the intensity of the second compared with the torpor of the first.

It is slow in absolute terms – Furtwängler’s incandescent recording is fully over five minutes faster - but that’s not the issue; other very successful recordings such as those by Karajan, Klemperer and Richard Stamp with the Academy of London are nearly as slow but far more gripping. Sinopoli is even slower at 29 minutes but evinces a far surer grip over how he builds tension to an overwhelming climax. It is true that Karajan supplemented the strings with Strauss’ blessing but again, that is not the only reason why the playing here lacks body. Another favourite account by Ross Pople and the London Festival Orchestra above presumably uses the original 23 string version but sounds as completely convincing. This latest recording from Salonen with a youthful orchestra has its merits but is not one to vie with those established classics.

Oculi Ensemble, 2019, Champs Hill Records, digital [25:40]
(NB: arr. For Septet by Rudolph Leopold)
 
Philip Buttall reviewed this admiringly earlier this year. I do not demur from his admiration for their lovely playing but hear an extra drive, urgency and impetus in the shorter, fierier account by the Brandis ensemble and it is to that I would turn first for the septet version, good as this is, as I do not find this as gripping. I wonder if Philip had the opportunity to compare the two and whether he would agree. Either way, if you love this work as I do, I recommend hearing the chamber arrangement; there are other releases of it from the Hyperion Ensemble on Paladino Music, the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion, and from Oxalys, in a download on the Passacaille label, but I have not heard them.

Mathieu Herzog/Appassionato, 2021, Naïve, live digital [30:24]

This arrived for review just as I was finishing up this survey, so naturally I have included it here, although it does nothing to alter my preferences.

It is the slowest performance I know, which is somewhat ironic as the only other live recording here – Furtwängler’s – is the fastest. I suggest above that one or two of the slower recordings are rather lugubrious yet none approaches this for heaviness. I find the string tone to be rather harsh and raw – indeed, at times verging on the shrieky - especially there appears to be some conscious diminution of vibrato, in line with more recent performance practice, and the playing is not absolutely immaculate – understandable in a live performance, but as my task is to indicate the best, I must mention it. The heavily bowed strokes rising by semitones at the climax of the work sound laboured rather than impassioned when delivered this slowly; to me this lacks real tension.

It is recorded very closely, so the intake of the performers’ sniff before the downbeat and even the thwack of the double basses’ bows are very audible; these are not necessarily terrible things but there is little sense of space or atmosphere around the recording and I find it claustrophobic.

Helpfully five cue points are given; many recordings provide only one track.

I am sure this was highly enjoyable as part of the concert from which this is taken, but in absolute terms it is not competitive.

Recommendations:
 
This survey has presented me with a more acute version of the problem I encountered in surveying Strauss’ Sinfonia domestica, insofar as its discography was so replete with excellent recordings that I could hardly whittle them down sufficiently to make any meaningful choices and the same is true Metamorphosen. I found that as I listened to them in succession, many were both superb and, for all practical purposes, largely indistinguishable one from another, with only a handful of exceptions, such that I was often swept along by the music and forgot any pretence to objective analysis. Any string ensemble that can tackle Metamorphosen successfully has to be first-class and most of the recordings above - with just a few exceptions - are superlative, both technically and aesthetically. In truth, half way through this survey I began to feel as I were a fraud, as I just kept encountering or re-encountering recordings which were essentially impeccable. For the most part, the main distinctions to be made here pertain to the technical differences between mono, stereo and digital recordings; very few recordings are interpretatively deficient and ultimately my choices are somewhat dependent upon arbitrary preferences and associations based on first acquaintance.

Karajan is the name which occurs most frequently in the context of recommending best versions and for good reason: he had a special affinity for Strauss’ music and as such his recordings feature the most frequently in my surveys of the operas, the tone poems and, indeed, the Four Last Songs; sometimes he is without rival, although in this case I am also endorsing accounts rather different in manner.

First choices:
Karajan 1969 DG*
Pople 1990 ASV*
Sinopoli 1994 DG
*overall best

Highly recommended:
Barbirolli 1967 EMI/Warner
Marriner 198 Decca
Kempe 1970 EMI/Warner
Karajan 1980 DG
Previn 1986 Decca
Stamp 1989 Virgin
 
Septet version:
Brandiss Quartett (aug.) 1998 Nimbus

Historical:
Furtwängler 1947

Ralph Moore



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