R. STRAUSS: Josephs-Legende Ballet Pantomime – Orch. of the Bavarian Radio Munich/ Robert Heger – Arcanta

by | Jan 7, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

R. STRAUSS: Josephs-Legende Ballet Pantomime, Op. 63 – Orchestra of the Bavarian Radio Munich/ Robert Heger – Arcanta 233593, 61:05 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Although ballet does not seem like the ideal medium for as “programmatic”or “operatic” a composer as Richard Strauss, he stated that he “wanted to revive dance. Dance, the mother of present-day arts, as it stands between them as mediator.” Whether or not Terpsichore warrants such hyperbole, Strauss in 1914 found himself urged by his chief librettists Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Harry Kessler to address the subject of the Biblical Joseph as a vehicle for “a music-drama without words.” Strauss was to create the ballet as a “creative intermission” between  Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Joseph, the fifteen-year-old shepherd boy and seeker of God, Joseph the reader of dreams, did not immediately gratify the Strauss imagination: “A boy like Joseph, always looking for God – that needs a hellish amount of effort on my part.  .  .  .perhaps in some atavistic corner of me, I shall be able to find a pious melody for the worthy lad.” Strauss, by the way, returned to the ballet medium after World War I, with a tribute to the fin-de-siecle Viennese spirit, in his Op. 70 Schlagobers.

The one-act ballet-pantomime premiered in Paris 14 May 1914, just two months prior to WW I. Vassily Nijinsky danced the title role of Joseph, the impresario Sergei Diaghilev presided. Strauss conducted, but the initial premier lasted a mere seven performances. Nijinsky himself fell from Diaghilev’s good graces, and Michael Fokine and Leonid Massine replaced him as choreographer and dancer, respectively. Thomas Beecham soon took up the score in London for another set of seven performances. No melody in this score strikes us as essentially “pious,” but Strauss raises the voluptuousness of Potiphar’s court, with its riotous feasts and the seductions by Potiphar’s wife. Strauss borrowed his heavily exotic orchestration from his earlier The Isle of Cythera.  Robert Heger (1886-1978) has full colors at his disposal, including four harps, glockenspiel, celeste, organ, xylophone, large and small cymbals, and pairs of castanets.  Occasionally, the lighter or martial melodies remind us of Der Rosenkavalier or Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  The sequence with the xylophone proves diaphanously effective, and might allude to the composer’s Dance Suite after Couperin.  A degree of mysticism invades the scoring, high flutes and strings accomplishing the heavenly host, perhaps suggestive of moments in Tod und Verklaerung.  Most of the music seems “busy-work,” and not in the most attractive sense, serving as transitional filler until Strauss can elicit another lushly romantic melodic fragment.

The Acanta CD format, set as one continuous 63-minute track, makes selecting excerpts for broadcast or musical examples virtually impossible.  So, be prepared to sit through the entire ballet for its one ripe hour. Restored sound from 1952, a “product of the FonoTeam Gmbh, Hamburg,” is quite good. [I would say only OK sound; there are other much better versions sonically…Ed.]

—Gary Lemco

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