The brunt of the Fricsay legacy in Richard Strauss here makes its debut, 1949-1954.
R. STRAUSS: Burleske in D minor; Oboe Concerto in D Major; Duet-concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, String Orchestra and Harp in F Major; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28 – Leon Goossens, oboe/ Heinrich Geuser, clarinet/ Willi Fugmann, bassoon/ Margrit Weber, piano/ RIAS-Symphony Orchestra/ Ferenc Fricsay – Audite 95.604, 75:07 (6/8/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Hungarian conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) maintained an ambivalence towards the post-Romantic school of composition, which meant that he restricted his repertory either to Mozart, the mainstream Romantic period composers, and to the neo-Classic school which embraced the likes of Stravinsky, Egk, Einem, Blacher, and in his own, idiosyncratic Classicism, Bartok. We find only one score, some Rueckert songs, by Mahler, no Bruckner, no Reger. The music of Richard Strauss figured only sporadically in Fricsay’s regard, as witnessed by the mere four orchestral compositions—and no operas—captured here, 1949-1954. There does exist a recorded performance of Don Juan, making the fifth and last piece embraced by Fricsay. And even here in the present set, the scope of the music selected tends to the concertante and chamber music idiom, excepting the one symphonic poem, Till Eulenspiegel (11 February 1952) in a brilliant, mocking spirit.
Fricsay ascended to the podium of the RIAS Symphony for the 1948-1949 season. The orchestra had been founded by the US military administration in divided Berlin; and, until Fricsay’s arrival, it had remained a shabby, makeshift ensemble lacking real discipline. As we listen to the performance of the Strauss 1945 Oboe Concerto in D Major (30 September 1949), we are auditioning the debut document of the collaboration between Fricsay and his chosen instrument. The soloist for the Strauss Concerto, Leon Goossens (1987-1988), became renowned for the flexibility of tone and refinement of his melodic line. The piece, conceived on the invitation—and challenge—of John de Lancie of the Pittsburgh Symphony, taxes the solo player with its demand for “circular breathing,” the ability to inhale and exhale in tones, so that the seamless, elongated melodic lines may be sustained. The sweet, even dulcet tones of Goossens’ 1907 instrument more than meets the requirements of this exacting piece, scored for a relatively intimate ensemble.
The earliest work by Strauss, the D minor Burleske (1886), means to overwhelm us with bombast and virtuoso pyrotechnics, as exemplified by its dedicatee, Eugen d’Albert. The piece reflects the personalities of at least three masters: Hans von Bulow—for whom the piece was first intended—Johannes Brahms, and Franz Liszt. Though written in a dark D minor, after the mood of the Brahms First Piano Concerto, the work tends to explode, cascade, and skitter in the manner of a scherzo. The opening coup of four tympani on D sets the stage for the keyboard’s volcanic arrival on the scene, the theme an adumbration of Till Eulenspiegel. Later, Strauss will quote a motif from the Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan. Like Brahms, Strauss organizes his ‘scherzo’ in sonata-form; but like Liszt, the work evolves as a single movement set in large periods, with a huge coda. Besides the battle-dress of the piece, its late evolution becomes a gracious waltz in which the piano part exerts diaphanous lightness. Swiss soloist Margrit Weber (1924-2001), whom Fricsay also engaged for performances of Falla and Stravinsky, exerts pungent force in her playing, and the RIAS ensemble responds with singular, broad energy throughout the various moods of this knotty, thrilling piece.
Strauss wrote the Duet-Concertino in F between 1946-47, his having been principally inspired by Hugo Burghauser, bassoon player of the Vienna Philharmonic. Much in the spirit of his opera Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss wished to pay homage to his beloved Mozart, with a piece that would tender affections for winds and small ensemble in a chamber music idiom. We may recall that Mendelssohn, too, sported ideas of duets for clarinet and basset horn, much in a similar spirit of musical dialogue. Strauss joked that a “program” of sorts could be attributed to the score about a princes who loves a dancing bear. Another plausible “story line” cites Odysseus and his meeting of Princess Nausicaa on the island of Scheria. What strikes us about the performance (20 April 1954) lies in Fricsay’s clear sense of the Baroque concerto-grosso effect, in the way the passages divide the larger group (ripieno) with the small solo ensemble (concertino). Clarinet player Heinrich Geuser would consistently work for Fricsay in recording, such as that of the Weber F Minor Concerto.
Flexibility of tone and audacity of spirit define the Fricsay Till Eulenspiegel of 1895, which reveals the virtuoso level of discipline Fricsay had imposed as part of his desire to rival the orchestral homogeneity provided by Furtwaengler’s Berlin Philharmonic. The constantly shifting moods each enjoy their specific attack and sensuous weight. The entire narrative moves as a picaresque comedy, irreverent, languorous, erotic, and spiteful. The high whistles of the piccolo sound as pungent as the thumps of the tympani. The sense of mischief rules in what dominates as Till’s amoral universe, a perpetual antagonism of middle-class, comfortable social values. The sheer speed of several passages punishes his French horn and oboe sections, with the strings having to whirl in 32nd notes over brazen horn effects. There occur several moments in which the eddies of sound remind us of the Apprentice’s loss of control in the famous scherzo of Paul Dukas. The military “doom” to which Till is condemned rarely has achieved such a mix of tragedy and rankling levity. This may well become your preferred reading of a long “familiar” score.
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