Familiar and unfamiliar orchestral selections from Richard Strauss receive energetic readings from conductor Karabits.

RICHARD STRAUSS: Macbeth, Op. 23; Don Juan, Op. 20; Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24; Festmarsch in C Major – Staatskapelle Weimar/ Kirill Karabits – Audite 97.755, 70:25 (5/18/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

In 1884, Richard Strauss became, through the support of conductor Hans von Bulow, the deputy at the Meiningen court orchestra, where Strauss nurtured a slow but abiding respect for Wagner’s music and for the condensed, symphonic poems of Franz Liszt. In 1886, Strauss selected a proper Shakespearean subject for musical treatment, the “Scottish tragedy” of Macbeth.  The gestation of this “harsh and gruesome” text took Strauss the better part of four years and three revisions: it premiered 13 October 1890 in Weimar, the very

Macbeth by John Martin

Macbeth, by John Martin

“home ground” of Franz Liszt, progenitor of the form of the tone-poem.  Following the psychological rather than the chronological aspects of the play, the violent, often dissonant music depicts the brief monarchy amiable King Duncan, but the music soon erupts with dark ambition and ruthless fury, especially in the use of a new instrument in Strauss arsenal, the bass trumpet. Music boastful, savage, and intermittently tender compete in various paroxysms that define “the deep damnation of [Duncan’s] taking off,” since Macbeth knows at every juncture the foulness to which he condemns his own soul.   There exist little of the “redemptive” aspects of the play—its relation of Macduff and Malcolm, the latter the legitimate heir to the Scottish throne—so instead, the atmosphere remains tumultuous, grotesque, emotionally bleak. The first recording that made any impact for this work came from Henry Swoboda in 1955, for the Westminster label (XWN 18078). Here, for Audite (19-21 December 2017), Karabits has a first-rate ensemble with which to strike out with singularly oppressive tones, “justifying” the un-popularity of this daring, experimental work.

Strauss began sketches for his musical treatment of Lenau’s Don Juan in 1888, in Padua, where the local cathedral stood in “grotesque contrast” to the erotic notion of the poet’s “Off and away for ever more and new conquests.” Perhaps Errol Flynn best expressed the ruling sentiment in his 1949 movie version of the tale: “There is a bit of Don Juan in every man; and, since I am Don Juan, there is more in me than in most.”  Strauss achieves a vivacious, colorful tour de force in his Op. 20, casting forth blazing clusters of brass and scalar string sounds, culminating with a kind of romantic apotheosis which, having exhausted itself, leaves the Strauss protagonist spent with world-weariness. There have been mighty and voluptuous readings of this virtuoso orchestral work, including those by Bruno Walter, Zubin Mehta, Sergiu Celibidache, and Herbert von Karajan. The premiere of this work occurred in Weimar on 11 November 1889 with the court orchestra. Karabits drives an inflamed Weimar ensemble, lavish in its brass, harp, wind, and string sonorities, of which the oboe part proves most noteworthy.

Portrait of Richard Strauss by Max Liebermann

Richard Strauss, by Max Liebermann

For his third effort in the realm of the symphonic poem, Tod und Verklaerung (1889) Strauss turned to a detailed program from Alexander Ritter, the Meiningen Orchestra’s concertmaster. The music means to dramatize “the hour of death of a[n artistic] person who has pursued the highest aspirations,” opening with soft, weak breaths and passing through remembered triumphs and tragedies until the mortal agonies cease, and a sense of release from the mortal coil announces itself. The interchange of violin, harp, flute, and oboe captures the hues of confirmation of a life’s work and its irretrievable loss in the low basses and tympani. Karabits has fine competition in this potent work from the likes of Bruno Walter, Jascha Horenstein, and Wilhelm Fuertwaengler. Karabits, nevertheless, projects a mighty and mortal storm in the series of death throes that precede the vision of the next world. The sweet remembrances, too, have their nostalgic charm and grace. The transfiguration motif, set in high melodic arches, appealed to Strauss himself enough that he reused the device in one of his set of  “Last Songs,” Im Abendrot, from 1948. The relatively ego-centric work of 1889, its depiction of the life travails and triumphs, set the tone for many of the “autiobiographical” works in the Strauss oeuvre, like the Domestic Symphony and Ein Heldenleben.

As a youth, under his father’s tutelage, Richard Strauss had conducted one amateur group, Die Wilde Gung I, which father Franz Strauss had directed since 1865. When the ensemble celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1889, Strauss composed a festive March in C Major that his father premiered in Munich, 1 February 1889. Karabits and his ensemble had to be granted permission from the Munich Orchesterverein to record the score. Despite its grandiose, opening flourishes, the seven-minute work tends to eschew the brassy fanfare devices endemic in these kinds of festive pieces.   Rather, Strauss utilizes his string section for upward-rising melodies, while brass and battery punctuate the musical periods. One unfamiliar with the piece, upon hearing the lyrical middle section, might attribute the piece to Dvorak or Suppe. The militant style might have inspired much of Korngold’s Hollywood fanfare writing.  A good beer-and-schnitzel piece!

—Gary Lemco