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Strauss wind FR745
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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Sonatina No 2 ‘Happy Workshop’, Op. posth. (1945/46) [40:52]
Wind Serenade, Op 7 (1881) [9:32]
Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble/George Vosburgh
rec. 2019, Kresge Theatre, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

The Reference Recordings label is noted for the quality of its recordings and this new album presenting a pair of underrated and neglected works for wind ensemble by Richard Strauss is no exception. Separated by some sixty-five years, the Wind Serenade, Op 7 and the Sonatina No 2 ‘Happy Workshop’ span Strauss’ entire creative career.

The American conductor here, George Vosburgh, has enjoyed a successful career as a trumpeter. Most notably, he served as principal trumpet of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1992 until his retirement in 2017. He has also followed a parallel career as a trumpet soloist and was entrusted with the premieres of several works. Now a lecturer and conductor, Vosburgh is music director and director of wind ensemble studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and is here conducting the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble in their first collaboration in the recording studio.

The Wind Serenade in E-flat major is a fledgling work by the seventeen-year-old Strauss, then still a grammar school pupil. It is a single-movement work in classical sonata form marked Andante and scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, a contrabassoon and four horns. Strauss was clearly influenced and probably advised by his father, Franz, the renowned principal horn with the Bavarian Court Opera and teacher at the Royal Conservatory in Munich who also conducted his own amateur orchestra. Connections to the great serenades of Mozart, whom Richard Strauss revered, have been noted and I also find a quality of Mendelssohnian amicability in the score.

In 1882, the premiere was given by members of the Dresden Court Orchestra conducted by kapellmeister Franz Wüllner at a Composer’s Society of Dresden concert held in the Drei Raben hostelry in Dresden. In late 1883, no less a figure than renowned conductor Hans von Bülow took up the Wind Serenade with the Meiningen Court Orchestra, a leading orchestra which toured with the Wind Serenade, bringing Strauss acclaim for the first time in his local area. In the booklet notes it refers to Strauss late in his life being rather dismissive of the Wind Serenade especially his choice of instrumentation, stating that ‘double woodwinds are impossible against four horns.’ The Wind Serenade shifts between episodes that are carefree and calm to a noticeable mood of ebullience, including moments of great beauty. Suitably inspired, the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble under Vosburgh provides an engaging performance making a convincing case for this youthful serenade whatever its shortcomings. Although a difficult choice, one of my recommended accounts remains Christian Thielemann conducting members of the Staatskapelle Dresden on Profil. Thielemann’s compelling live recording was given as part a special series of concerts in 2014 in the Semperoper, Dresden, to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary of the composer’s death. My second recommendation is the Netherlands Wind Ensemble under Edo de Waart in 1971 at De Doelen, Rotterdam on Philips/Decca which has been reissued by Newton Classics in 2011 as part of the Edo de Waart double CD set with the title ‘Strauss: Complete Music for Wind Ensemble’ which includes the Sonatina No 2 (Symphony for Wind Instruments) plus the Oboe Concerto performed by Heinz Holliger.

Strauss was still productive during his autumn years at his home in Garmisch, Bavaria. In 1943 he completed his Wind Sonatina No 1 ‘From an Invalid’s Workshop’ and soon after, in 1944-45, he turned to the Wind Sonatina No 2 in E-flat major. Known by its subtitle ‘The Happy Workshop’ (Fröhliche Werkstatt), it is a classically conceived four-movement Sonatina No 2 for sixteen wind instruments scored for pairs of flutes, oboe, bassoon, five clarinets, a contrabassoon and four horns dedicated ‘to the spirit of the divine Mozart at the end of a grateful life.’ Hermann Scherchen conducted the premiere in 1946 with the Winterthur Musikkollegium in Switzerland. Although he was still alive when it was premiered, it is one of several late scores Strauss designated as an ‘opus posthumous’ and was published after his death as a ‘Symphony for Wind Instruments’.

It is a substantial work, taking here just under thirty-one minutes to perform, and is technically demanding for the players, who face the significant challenge of balancing the different instruments and their various combinations, markedly woodwind with horns, especially in the higher reaches. Strauss’ scoring asks for a quartet of horns, and I notice that for this recording Vosburgh has opted for an additional fifth horn. His ensemble displays satisfying unity, playing with impressive levels of concentration and a warm passionate spirit and clearly relishing the challenge; any intonation issues are slight and rare. The qualities of colour and timbre it produces complement each other and are both natural and gratifying. In the 1980s, when I first encountered the Sonatina No 2 on record, it seemed overlong and didn’t hold my attention; however, in recent years my view has become very different. It is a glorious work, beautifully scored and performed and repeated hearings will certainly bring rewards. This is gratifying playing by Vosburgh’s wind ensemble but my preferred account of the Sonatina No 2 ‘The Happy Workshop’ remains the glorious performance by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble conducted by Edo de Waart as per above.

I have no problems whatsoever with the clear and well-balanced sound. Commendable booklet notes written by Amanda Vosburgh provide information and context for each work but the running time for this CD is ungenerous at only fifty-one minutes. Strauss wrote two other works for wind ensemble: the Sonatina No 1 in F major (1943) that probably wouldn’t fit, and the Suite for Winds in B-flat major, Op 4 (1884) that could have been accommodated on the album.

Michael Cookson

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