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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Prelude to Capriccio, Op 85 [10:51]
Quartettsatz in E flat major, TRV 85 [1:35]
String Quartet in A major [30:02]
Ständchen [4:18]
Festmarsch for Piano Quartet, AV 178 [5:22]
Two Pieces for Piano Quartet, AV 182 [7:22]
Metamorphosen (arr. Rudolph Leopold) [25:40]
Oculi Ensemble
rec. February 2019, Music Room, Champs Hill, UK

Metamorphosen is a brand new release on the enterprising Champs Hill Records, and features a section of chamber music by Richard Strauss for various-sized string ensembles, with piano added when required. It’s blessed with an eye-catching picture on the front, which really manages to attract your attention, even before you’ve got it into your CD player – the jewel case incidentally also comes with the added protection of a card sleeve.

A brief glance through the contents shows that the CD opens with a familiar work for the composer’s late period, and finishes with a similarly well-known piece, and which furnishes the title of the CD, always a good plan when there’s a mix of familiar and quite unknown works together.

The Oculi Ensemble is a flexible string outfit, equally as home as a Duo, yet fully expandable to a Septet. Strauss’s Prelude to Capriccio (1942), the composer’s last stage work, is written as a Sextet. Capriccio is, in fact, an opera about opera, and deals essentially with a question that has confounded opera lovers for centuries, namely, which is more important, the words or the music? It has a deliciously-scored opening which, in the opera also goes on to function as the first topic of conversation in the on-stage drama, The Oculi do list an impressive array of fine instruments available to them, and, of course, this must influence what we hear. But it is abundantly clear, from the very first note, that there is a tremendous empathy between all six players, so that shared dynamics and phrases emerge so naturally from such a rich sonority, where the sound can vary from almost symphonic proportions to tantalizing chamber-music sonorities. From the musical standpoint, when seen in the light of some of the revolutionary musical development as the 20th century unfolded. Strauss instead is luxuriating in the post-Wagnerian Late Romantic style of extended tonality and modulation. He is incredibly adept in employing his six instruments, and there is a glorious sheen to his writing which is more than matched by the sheer quality of the Oculi’s playing, and the first-rate, well-balanced recording.

In 1879 the composer began work on a projected string quartet movement, the Quartettsatz in E flat, but which he abandoned in its 42nd bar, which is the Oculi’s second offering – all 95 seconds of it. It wasn’t the case of Strauss lacking inspiration, it was merely that he got distracted by the other works he wanted to concentrate on at the same time.

In fact the next work to be heard – his String Quartet in A – is a fully-fledged four-movement work lasting 30 minutes and as such the longest piece on the CD. An early effort, it was completed in 1880, and there are notable influences of Haydn and Mozart at the start of the Allegro, before some more searching modulations and chord juxtapositions combine to extend the composer’s harmonic palette significantly. Logistically, it is noticeable how the six players from the opening sextet have now successfully decamped into their somewhat different roles in the more intimate setting of a string quartet, attesting to their sheer versatility as an ensemble. The second movement (Allegro molto), which functions as the Scherzo, suggests the humour of Beethoven in his earlier works in the same genre, which the players’ lightness of the bow, and taut articulation match the musical content so perfectly. This also provides more than sufficient contrast with the somewhat sombre-sounding Trio, which almost seems reticent to return to the swagger of the initial Scherzo. When it does, though, the players clearly take great delight in finishing off this effervescent movement with the delicate lightness of a meringue.

According to Andrew Stewart’s highly informative and erudite English-only sleeve-notes, eminent conductor and biographer Norman Del Mar dismisses the slow movement – Andante cantabile, molto espressivo – by alluding to the ‘lame symmetry of its themes’. Given that it’s still the work of an innocent sixteen-year-old schoolboy, I find that harsh. In the sensitive hands of the Oculi, and particularly lead violin and cello, and the effective dynamic control from all four players, this is not the case at all. Indeed, I would venture to suggest that this is perhaps the emotional heart of Strauss’s first essay in the genre. The finale has the spirit of Mozart at the start, but there are moments when it is clear that this is the work of a fledgling composer, not the finished product by any means. As the sleeve-note comments, the first performance was well-received and welcomed as ‘proof of decided talented’ [sic]. I rather think that the critic for the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten recognised something outstanding, when he saw it.

Ständchen of course, has nothing to do with Strauss’s eminently better-known Lied of the same name (1886), since the word itself merely means ‘Serenade’. As for this earlier example, little is known except it was written probably around 1881. But, as the sleeve note intimates, it stands as a perfect example of Strauss’s burgeoning lyrical invention, presented as an admirable song-without-words, all impeccably scored for piano quartet. Structurally it’s a simple ternary form, where the outer emotional sections frame a central more turbulent one. For me this has to be just another one of my favourite items on the CD.

Festmarsch for Piano Quartet (1886) was a silver-wedding gift for Johanna and George Pschorr, a well-known Munich family of brewers, of whom George was actually the composer’s uncle on his mother’s side. The outer sections finely capture the nature of the title, while the Trio in the subdominant key (G), is altogether more brooding and reflective, and will later permeate the work’s short, understated coda. There is some beautiful mellifluous playing in the Trio, especially those passages in thirds. Despite its slight excursion into the world of salon music, the Oculi Ensemble still treat it with the utmost respect and integrity.

The next two pieces, also for the same resources, similarly reflect the composer’s profound fondness for his uncle, and were written as a Christmas present for him. Strauss based the first piece – Arab Dance – on original Arab melodies. In the sleeve note, and on the track listing, it is wrongly rendered as Arabische Tanz, whereas the German word Tanz (dance) is masculine in gender, so the correct word-ending should be ‘Arabischer’ to reflect this. But grammatical nit-picking aside, the performance left me exhilarated. I don’t suppose there are too many souks in the idyllic West Sussex countryside where the CD was recorded, but the four players do an absolutely first-class job of creating one in front of our very eyes. Yet again they have studied every intimate detail the composer’s score, which then prevents it sounding like a pantomime belly-dance. The Liebesliedchen (Little Love Song) would have been a fond reminder for Strauss of the many musical soirées held at the Pschorr household. It’s another lovely confection, which the players treat with utmost delicacy and amiable charm, though never afraid to break forth in the more passionate moments. The piano throughout very much assumes the role of an accompanying harp, while strings weave their intertwining melodies above. Four minutes or so into the music, it morphs seamlessly into a Viennese Waltz, with upper strings luxuriating in sumptuous thirds, which again emphasizes the authenticity of the style to perfection.

The remainder of the CD is given over to the composer’s Metamorphosen. In its original form for twenty-three solo strings, the piece emerged as a commission for the founding-director of the Schola Cantorum in Basel. But its actual emotional content owed a great deal to the pointlessness and after-effects of the war that was raging all across Europe. We are here greatly indebted to Viennese cellist Rudolf Leopold (born 1954), for preparing the Septet version of the composer’s original 1945 creation. When, over the night of 13-14 February 1945, his beloved Dresden was destroyed, Strauss, who was 81 at the time, responded with Metamorphosen, a twenty-five minute reaction to the tragic course of 20th-century history, where, on the final page of the manuscript, he simply penned two words beneath a snippet of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony – ‘In memoriam!’.

Most of us have listened to Mozart’s G minor Symphony No 40, which has a slightly longer average playing-time of some twenty-eight minutes. But that is where any direct comparison ends. Metamorphosen is a real emotional roller-coaster that leaves performers and listeners alike physically drained and exhausted for, unlike the Mozart, it is in one continuous movement, and is the musical responsibility of just seven players, rather than a whole symphony orchestra. The work is heavily chromatic, relies significantly on complex counterpoint, and has a Wagnerian energy hurrying towards a great climax – a memorial to a type of music that had been long gone by 1945. As an art-form it succeeds so admirably because the composer at last appears to have found a way to address the present, but with the voice of the past. A mere two days after he finished Metamorphosen, the Americans took Nürnberg, where Wagner once held court – and, two weeks later, Hitler had killed himself. This is a tremendous ask, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, but the Oculi Ensemble proved themselves more than equal to such a daunting task, one which they despatched with exceptional élan.

At the start of the booklet, violinist Charlotte Scott comments that producing this new disc has been a real ‘labour of love’ for everyone concerned. Judging by the finished product, all I can say is that every single loving hour lavished on it, will return a far higher rate of musical interest than you could ever get from any high-street savings account today.

Philip R Buttall

Performers (Oculi Ensemble)
Charlotte Scott (violin); Emma Parker (violin); Jon Thorne (viola); Simon Tandree (viola); Pau Codina (cello); Stacey Watton (double bass): James Baillieu (piano)

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