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Choral Works
Feierlicher Einzug; Wanderers Sturmlied Op 14; Festliches Präludium Op 61; Olympic Hymn; Taillefer Op 52

Elisabeth-Maria Wachutka (sop); Gerhard Siegel (ten); Hans-Peter Scheidegger (bar); Münchner MotettenChor; Münchner Symphoniker/ Hayko Siemens
ARTE NOVA Classics 74321 72107 2 [57.25]
 Bargain price

This is the third recording of Taillefer, Richard Strauss's most unlikely vocal work, an enormous setting for soloists, chorus and orchestra, dating from 1903, telling the story of the Battle of Hastings and the heroic deeds of William the Conqueror's minstrel Taillefer. Owing to its overblown forces and a battle scene that out-Heldenlebens Ein Heldenleben, critical reception has not been as positive as I feel it deserves. Many readers may, like me, have long secretly cherished the old Urania LP (UR 7042) with a magnificent war-time solo line-up from 1944 of Maria Cebotari, Walter Ludwig and Hans Hotter now reissued on Preisser 90222. I guess today's rehabilitation of the music dates, at least in the UK, from Sir John Pritchard's BBC revival at the Royal Festival Hall in January 1989. I also seem to remember an East German Radio recording by Dresden Forces conducted by Alexander Rahbari which did the rounds late in 1989 and was broadcast by the BBC about then. Much later came the Plasson performance, also with Dresden Forces issued on EMI (7243 56572 2) which, with its coupling of Wanderer's Sturmlied and the male voice choral work Die Tageszeiten constitutes the main competition.

Historically Taillefer was killed in the battle; in Ludwig Uhland's ballad he lives, a hero, finding he is as skilled in battle as in song. The words are only given in German in the booklet - here's the last four lines in English to give the flavour:

My gallant Taillefer, come pledge me a main!
Oft has thy singing cheered me, in pleasure and pain;
But that brave song today upon Hastings field
Will cheer me for ever, until to death I yield.

There is a similar recorded history for Wanderer's Sturmlied, a six-part choral setting of extracts from a celebrated poem by Goethe very much in the manner of Brahms's occasional choral works. Again we have a mono recording from the 1950s - in this case Swoboda conducting Vienna forces on Westminster WN 18075, and again Plasson's programme for EMI makes a convincing case for the music in atmospheric digital sound. This new recording makes a strong case for it, committed performers who seem to believe in the music, vocally strong, and with all the benefits of a live concert.

The rest of the programme may sway it for you - keeping to the theme of the colossal in Strauss - the curious fanfare-prelude Feierlicher Einzug, the vapid Olympische Hymne of 1936, and the sprawling diatonic Festliches Präludium from 1913, for organ and orchestra, the latter really dependent on the grandest sounding Victorian instrument to make its full impact. In 1973 I was involved in a tour including this work conducted by Leslie Head, and its impact in the Victoria Hall, Hanley was remarkable - relatively small hall and powerful organ. This brings that occasion back, though it highlights one of the problems of this recording which has clearly been made in a large hall, but only intermittently makes the most of the big acoustic to add atmosphere to the proceedings. However, here - and in much of Taillefer - we do begin to hear the hall, and the music gains perspective when we do.

The Feierlicher Einzug has been recorded several times by various brass groups - either just the fanfares or arrangements - here we have the original with a large array of trumpets, and warmly supporting strings after the opening fanfares. At 6¼ minutes it is only a chipping from the Strauss workshop, but a completely typical one and worth the occasional airing. That is more than can be said for the Olympische Hymne. Though, if it is to be done, then it needs large forces such as these and a big space. Given Strauss's objective of sweeping all sports enthusiasts along, as the booklet note puts it, and with the eyes of the world and the Nazi regime on him, it is curious to say the least that he produced so earth-bound a piece. Judging by the rather tentative applause after this item even this local audience seem to have thought it not a good idea. It is by a long way the weakest piece in the programme, and it has such an unacceptable history from the 1936 Berlin Olympics on the whole one would prefer to forget it.

These performances were on the Richard Strauss day in Richard Strauss's home town of Garmisch Partenkirchen in June 1999, recorded by Bavarian Radio. Complete with applause to remind you these are public performances this is a fascinating programme and a memento of a notable and unusual concert. And with a remarkably quiet audience. If you only want the two main choral works, and you are willing to pay full price, you will probably go for Plasson, but these are very acceptable performances in a recording which in places has real distinction in accommodating impossibly large forces; but when the orchestra gets into closer focus can also sound a little tubby in places. But at super-budget price, who is complaining?

 Lewis Foreman


 Lewis Foreman

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