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Essential Richard Strauss

By Gary Barton

It was said of Richard Strauss (in fact he may have boasted it himself) that he could orchestrate a stein of beer. His mother was the daughter of the owner of the Pschorr Brewery, which is still making beer in Munich today. In fact, a bust of Strauss's great grandfather Joseph overlooks the yearly festivities at Oktoberfest. Strauss liked the Pschorr family so well that he dedicated what turned out to be his most popular opera, Der Rosenkavalier, to it.

Richard was born in Munich June 11, 1864 and lived to the ripe old age of 85. Thanks to his mother's considerable fortune he and his younger sibling had a carefree childhood. It was a relaxed and interesting household in which to grow up. Papa Franz wanted to be sure that his son's education was not limited to the field of music, so he insisted on a broad range of studies. The philosophical and literary qualities of Richard's tone poems stem from this early training.

As a youngster, Richard showed a real talent for music, which his parents encouraged. When he was four, he was started piano lessons with August Tombo, a colleague of his father's in the Munich Court Orchestra. By the age of eight, he was studying violin with his cousin, Benno Walter. Soon he was playing violin at one of the back stands in a small orchestra his father had put together. He quickly moved up through the ranks to the position of principal violin. Perhaps of greatest value in this experience was the opportunity to participate in hundreds of rehearsals of the standard orchestral repertoire of the time. Strauss absorbed the art of using the voices of the instruments of the orchestra, learning their limitations and strong points while at the same time observing how conductors evoked their interpretations from the orchestra.

Richard's father, Franz, was perhaps the most famous (and deservedly so) horn player in all of Europe. He was ultra conservative when it came to music and held in contempt the compositions of Liszt and Wagner, the "zukunftsmusik" (music of the future). Once, while a rehearsal was in progress, Franz contemptuously stood up and angrily left the orchestra pit, mumbling under his breath (but loud enough for Wagner, who was present, to hear) that he refused to play such outlandish music. Another time, he played a horn solo in a Wagner composition with particularly beautiful expression. The composer commented that anybody who played a piece of music so exquisitely could not possibly dislike it. Strauss answered vehemently that the way he played a work had nothing to do whatsoever with his opinion of it. In 1838, when the sad news of Wagner's death was announced to the orchestra, every man rose in silent homage except Franz Strauss.

For years, Franz was able to instill in his son the same venomous attitude towards Wagner's music that he himself harbored. The younger Strauss's earliest music clearly shows a masterly hand at work; He adhered to classical rules of theory and harmony and wrote music that conductor Hans von Bülow liked sufficiently to put on one of his programs. However, Richard was ultimately to become one of Wagner's most fervid advocates and most brilliant interpreters.

Richard became friends with many of the musicians in the Meinengin Orchestra, including violinist Alexander Ritter, who was a devoted acolyte of Wagner and Franz Liszt. Ritter found young Richard Strauss had a rich mind, open to other opinions regarding the music of these two progressive composers. In his memoirs, Strauss wrote, "New ideas must search for new forms - this basic principle of Liszt's symphonic works, in which the poetic idea was really the formative element, became henceforward the guiding principle for my own symphonic work." Strauss first became directly aware of the unique qualities of Wagner's operas when he saw productions of Tannhauser, Siegfried and Lohengrin. At first he found them beyond his comprehension, writing in 1949, "It was not until, against my father's orders, I studied the score of Tristan, that I entered this magic work, and later into Der Ring des Nibelungen, and I can well remember how, at the age of seventeen, I positively wolfed the score of Tristan as if in a trance."

In 1886, Strauss conducted the premiere of his own Symphony in f minor (written at the age of 16) with the Meiningen Orchestra in a program that also featured him as piano soloist for one of Mozart's piano concertos. Soon he was rapidly ascending the ladder of success as a conductor, first taking over as von Bülow's assistant and then assuming the position of third conductor at the Munich Court Opera.

Strauss met Gustav Mahler in 1887 while he was guest conducting in Leipzig. It is reported that the two hit it off quite well. That same summer, Strauss fell head over heels in love with soprano Pauline de Ahna. His later marriage to her might possibly be among the biggest mistakes of his life. Accounts vary, but Strauss was, to use an old phrase, "henpecked." Pauline turned out to be a harridan and insisted upon running all aspects of the household, including the financial matters, herself. Although Richard was earning a great deal of money, she gave him such a modest allowance that he was forced to obtain his beer change by playing a card game called "skat" with his fellow musicians. He was nearly unbeatable, and on one occasion so cleaned out the musicians at Bayreuth that Wagner's wife took pity on them and gave all the losers some of her own money.

On November 11, 1889, Strauss conducted the world premiere of Don Juan at a Weimar concert. He became an overnight success and from then on was considered the most significant and progressive German composer since Wagner. He was also known as one of "the big three" conductors of the time, Gustav Mahler and Felix Weingartner being the other two. In his role of conductor, he premiered and championed many works by lesser-known composers.

Strauss is best known for his operas, Salome in particular, and for his tone poems - orchestral works that come under the category of program music, i.e. pieces that describe literary subjects, actual events in history or contemporary life, landscapes and natural phenomena, paintings, and so on. Liszt, who wrote 13 tone poems of his own, invented the term.

The Essential Strauss

On Pentatone 5186 060, a Hybrid SACD, Paavo Järvi conducts the German Chamber Orchestra in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Maestro Järvi states in the notes, "We mostly think of Richard Strauss as the composer of large tone poems and great operas. But there is a side to Strauss that I particularly love and which unfortunately is under represented in the concert hall. That is the more intimate, chamber music side, which we are presenting on this recording." Also on the disc is the Duett-Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, Strings and Harp and the "Sextet" from Capriccio.

I found a very fine 3-disc set of the all-important Strauss tone poems on Deutsche Grammophon 463190. Karl Böhm, principal conductor of the Salzburg Festival for 25 years and friend of Richard Strauss, conducts. An Alpine Symphony (a wonderful evocation of some mountaineering from sunrise to sunset) and Don Juan are both 1957 mono recordings. I don't usually recommend mono recordings, but Böhm's readings of the two works with the Dresden Staatskapelle are benchmarks and well worth owning. The remainder of disc one and all of discs two and three are stereo, with the Berlin Philharmonic. They contain waltzes from Act III of Der Rosenkavalier, ALL of Also Sprach Zarathustra, Festival Prelude (very impressive), Till Eulenspiegel's "Merry Pranks" after an old picaresque legend in rondeau form, the notorious "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome, A Hero's Life, a tone poem for large orchestra (some say Strauss puffed his ego into this one), and finally Death and Transfiguration. It's quite a collection for a modest price.

If you want An Alpine Symphony in stereo, I recommend Hybrid SACD Deutsche Grammophon 471636, a very impressive Surround Sound experience if you have the equipment. Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic. Also in the disc is a sumptuous extended suite from Der Rosenkavalier.

One visitor who came to see Strauss when the war in Europe ran down its conclusion during the summer of 1945 was a G.I. named John De Lancie, who had been an oboist with the Pittsburgh Symphony. De Lancie was in awe of the old man, but summoned up the courage to ask Strauss if he'd ever considered writing an oboe concerto since there were so many beautiful solos for the instrument in many of his works. Strauss answered simply "no," but the seed was sown and by October of that year Strauss had completed the work. You can hear de Lancie perform Strauss's Concerto for Oboe in D Major with Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra Society recorded in May of 1987 on Boston Records 1045.

No collection of Strauss's major works would be complete without Don Quixote, inspired by the character portrayed by Miguel de Cervantes in his novel of the same name. I recommend another Hybrid Surround Sound recording of this work, Deutsche Grammophon SACD 474870 with Mischa Maisky, cellist, and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Violist Tabea Zimmerman plays the Don's squire, Sancho Panza. The Quixote recording dates from 2004. On a companion disc is Dvorak's Cello Concerto in b minor in a 2003 recording.

If you want an economical survey of Richard Strauss's various concerti, I suggest London/Decca 460296. Not only are Richard Strauss's two Horn Concertos recorded here; there is also one written by his father, Franz. Barry Tuckwell solos in all three. Also on this two- CD set is Strauss's Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, with Friedrich Gulda as soloist and the London Symphony Orchestra. Disc two opens with the rarely played Concerto for Violin in D Major with Boris Belkin as soloist. Gordon Hunt does the honors for the Concerto for Oboe in D Minor, and the disc closes with Strauss's Duett-Concertino for Clarinet, Bassoon, Strings and Harp with Dimitri Ashkenazy, clarinet, and Kim Walker, bassoon. Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra for the violin and oboe concertos.

Strauss thought that music such as Mozart's string quintets could be characterized as filled with musical symbols "which reveal the soul's loftiest truths and are not invented, but conferred in dreams to the one thus hallowed." Strauss's earliest version of Metamorphosen was not for the 23 solo strings we expect to hear today but rather far smaller forces. In its first version, Strauss used only seven musicians: two violins, two violas, two cellos and one double bass. The Vienna String Sextet (with bassist Alois Posch) has recorded the world premiere of this "urfassung" (original version) on EMI 55108. Also contained on the disc is a performance of the "Sextet" from Capriccio. It is remarkable to listen to these "stripped down" versions back to back with the performing editions for larger orchestra of both Strauss works mentioned earlier in this article. The CD also provides a look back at Mozart's own String Quintet in c minor, K. 406.

Richard Strauss's final compositions are his Four Last Songs, published after his death. They are settings of three texts by Hermann Hesse, the poems Frühling ("Spring"), September, and Beim Schlafengehen ("Going to Sleep"). The final text, Im Abendrot ("In the Glow of Evening"), is a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. I cannot recommended highly enough the 1965 recording by soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with George Szell conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, EMI 66960. The Four Last Songs are one of the most moving farewells to life I know. There are 12 additional songs on the CD, with the first of them (numbers 5-9) utilizing the same orchestra. Tracks 10-16 were done with Schwarzkopf, Szell and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1969. Happily EMI has included the original German texts of all of the songs on the CD with accompanying English translations in the booklet that comes with the CD.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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