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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Violin Concerto, Op 8 [31:13]
Oboe Concerto [25:02]
Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon [19:46]
Boris Belkin (violin), Gordon Hunt (oboe), Dimitri Ashkenazy (clarinet), Kim Walker (bassoon)
Radio-Symphony-Orchestra Berlin/Vladimir Ashkenazy
Rec. Berlin 1991
Presto CD
DECCA 436 415-2 [76:21]

It’s very strange to think that more than sixty years separate the first Strauss concerto from the other two on this disc. Strauss wrote his Violin Concerto and the Horn Concerto No 1 in 1882 while studying Philosophy at Munich University. Then nothing more of the kind until the Second Horn Concerto of 1942, which was the beginning of the wonderful late flowering, when he produced not only the Oboe Concerto and the Duett-Concertino, but also Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings, and the Four Last Songs.

The Violin Concerto, Op 8 is, to say the least, a highly ambitious work for an eighteen-year-old. Conventional in its three-movement quick-slow-quick format, it suffers from a certain lop-sidedness – the first movement is as long as the other two movements put together. Even though that first movement outstays its welcome by a fair amount, it has some beautiful moments that look forward to the mature composer. The piece is obviously indebted to the great romantic concertos, especially Mendelssohn and Bruch, and Belkin clearly views it in that context. However, I feel that he tries too hard, overplaying the expressive side of the work. Xue Wei (ASV 1991) is much more effortlessly in tune with the its character, and he brings great commitment to the melodious Lento and the Mendelssohnian Rondo finale.

The next three tracks, with Gordon Hunt’s recording of the Oboe Concerto, are an entirely different matter. This piece was written by Strauss con amore from beginning to end, for an instrument he always used so beautifully. There are so many notable recordings of this piece; for example that by John de Lancie, the American oboist who, as a young soldier stationed in Germany after the war, suggested the idea of a concerto for the instrument to the 80-year-old Strauss, though de Lancie didn’t get to record his version until 1987; and the great English oboist Leon Goossens recorded it in 1947 when it was ‘hot off the press’, though he plays the original finale, which Strauss revised and lengthened in 1948. In recent times, Heinz Holliger has recorded the work twice, and there are fine versions by Jonathan Small on Avie and Yeon-Hee Kwak (great name for an oboist!) on MDG. François Leleux’s version for Sony is wonderfully flexible, though a little too much so for my taste, and I find Hunt here to have achieved the perfect balance between flexibility and forward movement. The central Andante is a dream, so very sensitively played.

And finally, there is that curious little piece, the Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon, Strauss’s final purely instrumental work, which he dedicated to bassoonist Hugo Burghauser. Strauss told Burghauser that there was a programme to the work, that of the old tale of the beauty and the beast, with the clarinet as beauty and the bassoon as beast (Ravel had done something similar in his Mother Goose suite of twenty years earlier). The clarinet part is nicely done by another member of the Ashkenazy clan, Vladimir’s son Dimitri. But the real star is the great American bassoonist Kim Walker, whose gloriously woody yet rich sound is, for me anyway, a total indulgence.

These recordings are of the highest class, musically and sonically, and should feature prominently on the shelves of all Strauss lovers.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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