Metamorphosen: John Wilson conducts Strauss, Korngold, Schreker – Sinfonia of London – CHANDOS

by | Jun 7, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

R. STRAUSS: Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings; KORNGOLD: Symphonic Serenade in B-flat Major, Op. 39; SCHREKER: Intermezzo, Op. 8 – Sinfonia of London/ John Wilson – CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5292 (2/23/22)  (64:22) (Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The single symphonic movement Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss has its origin in a 1943 missive to conductor Karl Bohm, where Strauss mentions his working upon an Adagio for eleven, then seven strings; but by 1945, the end of WW II, Strauss admitted he could not bear to maintain “the snail’s pace in Bruckner,” and he had expanded his score to 23 solo strings: ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses, each playing from an independent part. The music would serve as an elegy, not merely for a defeated and ruined Germany, which had suffered “the most terrible period for mankind—twelve years of the rule of bestiality, ignorance, and illiteracy under the greatest criminals,” but for humanism and progressive culture, which had endured a catastrophic blow that would require generations to heal. 

The destruction of several, major German opera houses served to motivate Strauss to finish his lament for Europe’s cultural demise. Strauss dedicated the piece to Paul Sacher (1906-1999), founder of the Basler Kammerorchester (1926–1987). Sacher himself left no recorded document of Metamorphosen, but we have had potent readings from Wilhlem Furtwaengler, Herbert von Karajan (who used 36 strings), Clemens Krauss, Otto Klemperer, and Jascha Horenstein. Of the more current accounts, that by Giuseppe Sinopoli ranks high, as do the later accounts by Herbert von Karajan with his Berlin Philharmonic. Given the breadth of John Wilson’s performance (rec. 27 August 2021), some four minutes longer than that by Furtwaengler, the broad canvas of the work – an arched, ternary form utilizing five themes, including the Funeral motto from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony – unfolds with the sad song of five cellos and two double basses that invites participation in the ‘transformations’ of yearning and nostalgia, derived from Strauss’s having sought spiritual consolation in the works of Goethe, his metamorphoses studies on plants and animals. The tone becomes temporarily more optimistic, etwas fliessender (somewhat more flowing), only to revert to its minor harmonies and sustained resignation. The quotation from Beethoven, in its original C Minor modality, bears the inscription In Memoriam! In the score. The demands upon the individual string parts accumulate, including no key signatures, chromatic counterpoint and cross-rhythms, and askew syncopations. The sonic image projected by the Sinfonia of London – courtesy of Recording Producer Brian Pidgeon – proves first rate, a shimmering, often anguished testimonial to a bygone, compassionate way of life.

The Intermezzo by Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was composed in 1900, and it bears a  melodic immediacy that compels our attention, a glowing example of post-Romantic inspiration. Conductor Ferdinand Loewe had given the world premiere in what had served as the home of the Vienna Symphony. The lovely piece won first prize in a competition that the Neue musikalischer Presse sponsored. Redolent of the influence of Brahms and the Austro-German tradition, this eight-minute work will provide an illuminating instance of new discovery for those who already feel affection for the idiom.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), having spent fifteen years in Hollywood, California in luxuriant exile composing classic film scores, returned to Vienna in 1949, bearing with him the recently completed score of his four-movement Symphonic Serenade in B-flat Major, written 1947-1948. Wilhelm Furtwaengler would give the world premiere in Vienna on January 15, 1950. Korngold dedicated the music to his wife, Luzi, and the first movement Allegro deciso, bears an ardent melody realized by two sets of 16 first and second violins. The rich texture likewise includes twelve violas, twelve cellos, and eight double-basses. Opening in D-flat Major, the tension between this key and urge to B-flat becomes palpable in a series of chromatic moves and contrapuntal, some of which demand passing dissonances and sustained pedal points. A middle section, Misterioso, casts a haze not so far from romantic interludes that might have  illuminated a scene for Errol Flynn or Paul Henreid .The movement ends, Poco piu lento, in the kind of haze we know from such genre pieces by Dvorak and Suk.

The Allegro molto Intermezzo second movement demonstrates the kind of pizzicato virtuosity we recall from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The mix of bowings, some on the bridge, some over the fingerboard, muted and not, creates a kaleidoscope of string colors, treating the home key of F with a certain disdain. The brief display of Presto bravura ends with a decisive thud. The succeeding, expansive Lento religioso projects an ardor not far from Mahler, marked by an idiosyncratic, chromatic melodic line that combines aspects of other post-Romantics, like Reger and early Schoenberg. The texture thins to an anguished piece of chamber music before erupting in full Mahler splendor in high tessitura, the line rife with slides and sudden shifts in register. The music ends in a world decidedly apart from earthly concerns.

Equally deft in the manipulation of textures, the Finale: Allegro con fuoco = Poco meno tranquillo – Tempo I (Allegro furioso), A heaving bass line announces a thunderous moto perpetuo in competing metrics, the music’s melodic tissue somewhat reminiscent of Korngold’s score for Errol Flynn’s breakthrough role in the 1935 Captain Blood. Between diaphanous passages and thick tuttis, the music propels in nervous convulsions of sound, swirling as it proceeds. The entire disc, well recommended, bears testimony to the ferociously sensitive discipline of the Sinfonia of London and its gifted music director. 

—Gary Lemco




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