R. STRAUSS: Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings; Sinfonia Domestica, Op. 53 – French National Radio Orch./ BBC Sym. Orch./ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio PASC 428, 71:20 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

The Strauss Metamorphoses is a “study for 23 solo string instruments” in a single movement lasting approximately 25 minutes. The instruments for which it is scored are ten violins, five violas, five ’cellos and three basses. Sometimes in performance the parts are doubled or tripled, in order to employ the full string complement of the modern orchestra. In this recorded performance (from EMI Angel 35101) the players are the twenty-three soloists specified by the composer. The group was carefully selected by Mr. Horenstein from the personnel of the French National Orchestra and is the same which had played Metamorphoses under his direction in an earlier concert performance. Strauss had written Wolfgang Schneiderhan and his fellow Quartet members in 1945 that he planned a “Memoriam” piece for solo strings, an elegy that more or less bade farewell, not to the Germany that National Socialism had reduced to physical and moral rubble, but to the heroic spirit his land had once possessed. The destruction of the Vienna State Opera House by Allied bombs had provided the necessary catalyst for the composition.

This disc, courtesy of recording engineer Andrew Rose, completes the transfer of the esteemed Angel LP that had combined the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms with the Strauss as led by Jascha Horenstein (1898-1973).  Recorded 30 June 1953, the Metamorphosen performance emanates a somber warmth and gravitas, made all the more valedictory by the persistent trope from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Funeral March. The obliteration of opera houses in Dresden and Vienna denied Strauss a host of cultural memories and artifacts whose musical leitmotifs pass through the musical texture in the form of Capriccio, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, and Daphne.  Along with the celebrated performance by Wilhelm Furtwaengler – whose 1947 reading moves at a faster pace – this Horenstein version brings a broader pace and sensitivity than I find in the various Karajan interpretations.

The Strauss Sinfonia Domestica (1904) celebrates in realistic terms the diurnal life of the composer, the music’s capturing the family romance, disputes, and “hymnal” spiritual union in spite of the daily exasperations. Critic Romain Roland took umbrage at the graphic love-scene Adagio, which depicts a sexual encounter – after the seven o’clock bedtime of the child – in which the feminine motif “mounts” the Papa theme, “hurled,” in Rolland’s phrase, “against good taste and common sense.” After the passionate embraces, a moment of repose ensues but gives way to a massively contrapuntal fifth movement that signifies a colossal, triple-fugue rhubarb. The orchestration proves particularly massive, and Hans Richter quipped that all the gods in Wagner’s Valhalla could not outdo the noise emanating from one Bavarian brat in his bath.

Jascha Horenstein leads a sensitive, controlled, and beautifully modulated performance from the BBC, 19 February 1961, a rendition we might have expected from on BBC Legends a few years ago. Certainly, we here enjoy a monument added to the Horenstein recorded legacy. Andrew Rose graciously revives this “Sunday Symphony Concert” in vivid detail, in which the BBC Symphony strings, winds, and brass display a virtuoso capacity for contrapuntal color effects. At the climax of the love music, grinding dissonance, motivic superposition, and texture graphically differentiate male and female response well before Dr. Kinsey: the Strauss unpublished note in the short-score calls attention to “the woman’s motive in very excited figuration, the man’s quickly subsiding” (“Das weibliche Motiv in sehr aufgeregter Figuration; das maennliche sich schnell beruhigend”). Happily, the music moves into a kind of epilogue or transfiguration sequence, in which the thirds and parallel sixths of the original step-wise them gain an illuminated ascendancy, assuring us that the family romance achieves a numinous significance.

—Gary Lemco