Zubin Mehta Conducts Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov – London Philharmonic Orchestra – LPO

by | Nov 12, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

R. STRAUSS: Symphonia Domestica, Op 53; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op. 35 – Henrik Hochschild, violin (Rimsky-Korsakov)/ David Nolan, violin (Strauss)/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Zubin Mehta – LPO-0117 (2 CDs) 44:19; 45:23 (3/6/20) Distr. by PIAS] *****:

Richard Strauss composed his great paean to domestic life in 1904, the tenth anniversary of his marriage to Pauline de Ahne and the seventh year since the birth of his son, Franz, in 1897. In 1902, Strauss and his family acceded to a first tour of America, and Strauss decided a new piece to suit the occasion should be – almost a corollary of his 1899 Ein Heldenleben – a composition dedicated to his own home life. Quoth Strauss: “I don’t see why I should not write a symphony about myself. I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.” 

The scoring of this large, five-movement symphony calls for massive forces and colors, much like scores by friend and colleague Gustav Mahler; yet, intertwined with the grand – and overly rhetorical – episodes lie passages of simple, folk-spirited writing that has touches from Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, whose first public performance Strauss had conducted. The symphony unfolds as a colossal, unbroken tone-poem, and it depicts twenty-four hours in the Strauss diurnal life. Strauss issued a program in 1905 that illustrates the sections: : Introduction (which unfolds the themes of Papa, Mama and Child); Parents’ HappinessThe Child at Play (scherzo); Cradle Song; Doing and ThinkingLove SceneDreams and Cares (Adagio); and Merry ArgumentHappy Conclusion (the finale, proceeding as a jubilant, spirited double fugue).

The Introduction uses color leitmotifs to identify the cast of characters: the cello indicates the composer’s “easygoing” nature; the oboe his “dreamy” side; the clarinets his “sullen” moods; and the violins convey his “fiery” personality. The wife enters with the flute, the music inverted from the husband’s “easygoing” motif. The Baroque oboe d’amore announces the child in 3/8, whose quiet side is diatonic, while his obstreperous moments appear in muted trumpets and in woodwind trills, variants on his Father’s innate complex. The scherzo transforms the Child’s theme into moments of frisky play with Dad and an appropriately messy bathtub scene, 2/4, that likely ends in tears and reproaches. The tired child retires at 7 PM (the glockenspiel) for a Cradle Song taken from Mendelssohn’s Op. 19 Gondola Lied.  

The Adagio movement subdivides into three sections, opening with the Father’s (“dreamy”) creative work. Mother enters, and a Wagnerian Love Scene erupts – quite graphically, with her motif “atop” the Father’s – and then subsides into Dreams and Cares, of which one of the latter concerns the Child’s future, the basis of the double fugue of the Merry Argument that opens at a corresponding 7 AM. A high solo violin plays the Child’s motif, and the woodwinds intone a chorale of domestic reconciliation. The contrapuntal mastery of the latter episodes and the brilliant coda transform the Child’s theme – “and a Child shall lead them” – into the high horn section for a shimmering conclusion. 

The LPO and Mehta bring a glowing patina to this rendition of Symphonia Domestica (rec. 26 January 1988) that well captures the mercurial, rowdy, and occasionally epic gestures of a 24-hour compression of married life. As in the demands for Ein Heldenleben, the woodwinds meet their tasks with vivid, etched harmony. The sheer, intense mass of the Love Scene should wake up quite a few sound systems. The anticipations to harmony in Der Rosenkavalier permeate the opening sequence of the Finale, and the sustained, polyphonic mix hopes to embody for the Strauss household the same, colossal import – via brass and tympani – as the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 paean to The Arabian Nights meant to convey “an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairytale wonders” in four symphonic tableaux.  The opening fanfare – Sultan Schariar’s vow to slay each of his wives after their initial wedding night – leads to a moment from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to invoke the voice of Scheherazade in seductive tones of violin and harp, so as to invoke her continuous tale of  1001 life-sustaining nights. The LPO, originally Sir Thomas Beecham’s orchestra, now boasts a performance (rec. 9 April 1992) worthy of that conductor’s inspired, infinitely delicate rendition with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The marvelous barcarolle of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship exudes the wonderful colors of oboe, viola, brass and solo violin that pulsate and spray breakers in the course of this first voyage. 

The second movement, set as a variation on “the prince and the pauper,” The Kalandar Prince, sets violin, harp, and oboe in wandering motion, grazioso, in the Prince’s search for wisdom. Between brass fanfares and instrumental recitatives from the clarinet, the drama unfolds in a mystery-laden scherzando that borrows from Berlioz and looks ahead to Dukas. Both here and in the romantic third movement, The Young Prince and the Princess – made of sensuous molasses –  Mehta exacts a deft and transparent tapestry, like that from Beecham, who reminded us that the tale is told by woman, despite its robust progression. Even the cymbal strokes retain a demure modesty and restraint. The bassoon utters the final recitative in movement two that impel us first to the flute and horn, and then to Scheherazade and on to the heart-quickening coda.  

The last movement, Festival at Baghdad, briskly announces the sinister Sultan in trombones, and so too Scheherazade has her own introduction, moving in dramatic counterpoint to a single stroke on the tam-tam. The pungent violin solo makes us wish Rimsky-Korsakov had penned a full concerto instead of the relatively chaste Fantasy on Russian Themes, Op. 33. Once the action of the movement begins, culminating with the crashing of the ship upon the rocks, the momentum becomes uncanny. Only the exotic sachet of the third movement twice reminds us that love is in the air.  The dervish whirlings and thunderous interjections, the trumpet triple-tonguing, the flute figurations, all bespeak a world class of instrumental virtuosos at work.  At the conclusion, the appeased Sultan proclaims his mercy in the major key, and Scheherazade may sleep and dream blessed thoughts, after nearly three years. As an orchestral exercise in Eastern exotics, Scheherazade sets a unique standard in music.  

—Gary Lemco

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