R. STRAUSS conducts R. STRAUSS = Ein Heldenleben; Death & Transfiguration; Also Sprach Zarathustra; Till Eulenspiegel; Schlagobers Waltz; Salome: Dance of Seven Veils – Vienna Philharmonic/Berlin Philharmonic – Urania

by | Dec 28, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

R. STRAUSS conducts R. STRAUSS = Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40; Don Juan, Op. 20; Tod und Verklaerung, Op. 24; Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30; Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28; Schlagobers Walzer, Op. 70; Salome: Tanz der seiben Schleier -Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Salome)/Richard Strauss – Urania URN 22.394, 76:19;  63:10 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

A no-frills historical restoration from Urania taken from the 1944 Polydor inscriptions by Richard Strauss, leading his own music gives us five major symphonic poems in relatively clean sound, given some pitch fluctuations that more competent remastering experts like Michael Dutton and Mark Obert-Thorn could improve.  The 1928 Salome excerpt has already been restored superbly by both EMI and Pristine, but its addition here fits the general tenor of the collation.

The Ein Heldenleben offers no information on the extended violin solo for the Hero’s Helpmeet third section, kind of a Tristanesque love-scene. The tempos set by Strauss move briskly, the sentiment minimal. The VPO strings accomplish a degree of orchestral sheen, along with harp and flute, that makes for attractive listening. The Hero’s Battlefield becomes quite animated, perhaps even more central to the symphonic progress than is often its wont, Strauss giving considerable passion and definition to the high brass and winds, a virtual Pandemonium in Heaven. The main theme asserts itself through the bass and trumpets, urging some resolution to E-flat Major and the equivalent of a recapitulation, so that the Hero’s Works of Peace becomes an extended second development. A huge portamento marks the allusions from Guntram and Don Juan, a narcissistic mirror applied Strauss’s own catalogue of enduring tone pictures. A series of musical upheavals and chromatic descents marks the transition–via elements of Death and Transfiguration–into that unearthly realm Nietzsche once described as “Death by Immortality.” The fateful allusions to scales from Beethoven’s Eroica now spliced to the Strauss version of his own (French horn intoned) Valhalla become epic, given a catcall or two from his Adversaries, soon assuaged by the Beloved. Some shatter in the final chords prevents our full complicity in this apotheosis, but the intentions remain clear.

Energy and bravura execution from the VPO mark the 1898 Don Juan, a vivacious tour de force from the first notes. The composer’s tonal virtuosity, his ability to toss fire and bells at once, proves irresistible. The romantic secondary theme rises up kaleidoscopic colors, the VPO strings applying their special allure to the punctuated line from the horns. The oboe and flute work in several respects reminds one of the nocturne from Smetana’s The Moldau. Nothing self-effacing in the vaulting main theme, the heroics as much in the instrumental execution as in the quality of the melody.  For its final peroration, even the Koussevitzky version must breathe hard to rival, since Strauss has his VPO in marvelous throttle.

The first disc ends with Death and Transfiguration, the music set to the feverish words of Alexander Ritter. The 1888 tone picture enjoys a broad Largo movement from Strauss, who sets  the palpitating-heart motif against a series of plaintive, even nostalgic affects, particularly in the first violin and flute over a harp. The Allegro molto agitato section erupts into a titanic struggle, literally a fight for breath in the last moments of life’s “fitful fever.” Strauss, always wary of giving too much freedom to the brass, has his trumpets and trombones in a virtual eddy of frenzied convulsions, a true instrumental paroxysm. Then follow, Meno mosso, the refreshed memories of youth and romantic love and ideals, intoxicating and vainglorious at once. The bitter mix of mortality and pageantry that constitute the final pages, Moderato, quite compels us through this Strauss reading, and we sense the VPO to have been rapt by the presence of the creator of this remarkable sound document.

The 1896 tonepoem after Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, projects a Herculean cosmos at us from the onset, the C-G-C motif in full Technicolor, organ and orchestra in such glamour that the old shellacs barely contain it. Equally compelling is the Strauss reading of the second section, Of the Backworldsmen, although none has touched the searing heights that Fritz Reiner achieved in Chicago for RCA. Besides the more chromatic sections in Of the Great Longing and Of the Joys and Passions, each explosively saturated with the original motif, Strauss clearly wants to emphasize each note of the chromatic scale in the polyphonic Of Science, with its own debts to Liszt’s Eine Faust-Sinfonie. Strauss moves with stately authority to The Convalescent, which marks a reprise or recapitulation for the symphonic poem, already hinting at the liberation of The Dance-Song. Nice trumpet work, with woodwinds, low basses, and solo violin to realize the Dance-Song, Nietzsche’s testament to our freedom from all outmoded doctrines of thought. Do we hear a touch from the future Der Rosenkavalier as we pass on to The Song of the Night-Wanderer? The bitonal struggle at Midnight of B Major and C Major, the world of flesh and that of spirit, collide in an eternal paradox that this music posits but does not solve.

The 1895 Till Eulenspiegel enjoys some of the best sound in this set, although it, too, shatters at the top. The “lusty” energy of the fairytale piece dominates the reading, given plenty of irony and wit in the horn and clarinet to reflect Till’s self-destructive swagger and impish irreverence. The sense of a rondo in progress comes across in this Strauss reading, with broad tempo changes in the more bucolic sections. The sinuously ironic love theme certainly finds more fulfillment in Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier. Till’s final insult to society, his blasphemy, strikes with voluptuous glee right into the headsman‘s axe, and even his death screech from the E-flat clarinet provides “gallows humor.”

The Schlagobers Waltzes attempt to find that Old World Vienna what Stefan Zweig claims, in The World of Yesterday, the rise of National Socialism destroyed. And perhaps there is a kind of mania and emotional frenzy in these waltzes that insist we can find what brutality and bestiality had so thoroughly destroyed – Zweig’s “Golden  Age of Security.” If literature has its purple prose, so music has the Strauss operas, Salome and Elektra – the new realism applied to Classical subjects that likewise inspired Aubrey Beardsley. Strauss maintains the obstinate pulsation from the strings throughout, even as it transfers to the color instruments in Salome’s transparent veil, the passions rising in Herod’s warped temper.

–Gary Lemco


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