Before 1988, Strauss’s score for the Diaghilev
- a Cecil B. DeMille-like mélange
of bare flesh, sex and religion - had fallen into almost total obscurity.
Just a few recordings of the composer’s drastically pruned revision
of 1947, the so-called “symphonic fragment”, could be found
from time to time in the catalogues.
The proof of that neglect lies before me as I write this review, in
the form of Hiroshi Wakasugi’s 1988 account with the Tokyo Metropolitan
Symphony Orchestra, released that year on the Denon label (33CO-2050)
and boldly proclaiming itself to be a “world premiere recording”.
It had evidently been forgotten by that date that there had been at
least two earlier - if, admittedly, rather low profile - recordings
and Kurt Eichhorn.
Wakasugi’s somewhat stately and reverential but sonically impressive
recording appears, though, to have acted as a catalyst for a slow but
steady revival of interest. New high quality recordings were subsequently
made by Giuseppe Sinopoli in 2000 (see here
and Ivan Fischer in 2007 (Channel Classics CCS SA 24507).
Advances in recording technology will also have played a part in that
renewed flowering of interest, for while - as Heger’s splendid
account demonstrated - modern digital sound is not absolutely essential
to a successful recording of Josephslegende
, it certainly does
help. The typically lavish budget of the original 1914 Ballets Russes
production enabled Strauss to indulge in some grossly excessive orchestral
requirements for what was to become his longest continuous piece for
full orchestra. The result is a complex and highly sophisticated score
that more than exemplifies the most exotic, blowsily decadent - and
hugely enjoyable - characteristics of European orchestral music as it
stood on the verge of the First World War.
The realistic and crystal clear Chandos sound, expertly engineered by
Ralph Couzens and Jonathan Cooper, gets this new release from Neeme
Järvi and his Scottish forces off, therefore, to the best possible
start. That, though, is not enough on its own to displace its rivals:
Sinopoli and, even more so, Fischer both enjoy superb recording quality
in their accounts and Wakasugi’s 25 years old version still sounds
remarkably impressive too.
If there is little to distinguish between the modern versions in sound
quality, what of the new performance? It is, in general, characterised
by a slightly more skittish, bustling and lively approach. While the
stopwatch only gives us a limited, one-dimensional perspective, it is
still worth noting that, of all the versions mentioned so far, Järvi’s
is the only one to clock in at under an hour in length. Heger, by comparison,
takes 61:05, Sinopoli 63:54, Fischer 64:30 and Wakasugi a leisurely
66:30 - exceeding Järvi by more than eight minutes. Josephslegende
is, it goes without saying, a ballet score written for the real-life
dancers of 1914 to be able to perform and we are fortunate enough to
have available at least one DVD version of a staged performance (Deutsche
Grammophon / Unitel Classica 00440 073 4315). In a wonderfully compelling
John Neumeier production from 1977, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
under Heinrich Hollreiser brings the complete score in at 62:12 - you
can watch its thrilling and over-the-top final climax here
Are Järvi’s tempi a little too fast, therefore? I don't think
so. All of them sound, to my own ears at least, eminently danceable
and suitable for a staged performance, just as they ought to be.
Once or twice, though, I did think that Järvi might have been holding
something back, perhaps cutting down on the orchestral bombast in order
to suggest that the score exhibits rather more depth and seriousness
than others have supposed. A good example comes in the last minute or
two, which you can see and hear by accessing the previous link. At that
point Fischer, in particular, really utilises the percussion to hammer
home the emotional impact, while Järvi prefers to make the experience
more sonically and musically subtle.
My own preference, I confess, is to pull out the stops with Fischer
and to wallow, over-emphatic cymbals and all, in the sheer theatricality
and colour of an undeniably cathartic moment. That, though, is a subjective
personal judgement and it remains undeniable that Järvi’s
is a very fine interpretation and performance, superbly moulded and
played and extremely well recorded. Some who already own Sinopoli’s
or Fischer’s recordings may perhaps decide that enough is enough
and, to be honest, my own preference for a single performance would
be Fischer’s tremendously involving Budapest account. I would
want to keep alongside that, if I could, the exciting Heger performance
- in surprisingly vivid sound for its 1952 vintage - and the Neumeier
DVD of the staged ballet.
The two extra items on the new disc serve to differentiate it somewhat
from its rivals, none of which carry any extra material at all. The
love scene from Feuersnot
is very well done and, as one would
expect, certainly beats Beecham's recently reissued 1947 account (Testament
SBT 1147) when it comes to sound. Järvi’s approach is, in
fact, quite different from Beecham’s. In contrast to the latter’s
thrillingly romantic, strings-led performance which clocks in at 8:06,
Järvi goes for a more overtly erotic approach. He revels in Strauss’s
outrageously orgasmic whooping horns (think Don Juan
) and races
to his climax (sorry) in a mere 5:40. The other extra track, the op.
, does, as the slogan has it, exactly what it says
on the tin and provides the disc with a jolly, foot-tapping postscript
from a composer who had dashed it off at all of 12 years of age.
This new issue, incidentally, differentiates itself in one other way
from its competitors. After the early Heger recording where the piece
was entitled Josephs-Legende
with a hyphen, the Hollreiser DVD
and subsequent discs from Wakasugi, Sinopoli and Fischer all used the
unhyphenated two-word formulation Josephs Legende
. The new Chandos
issue opts, though, for an undivided Josephslegende
While there may, then, be some doubt about the work’s precise
title, there need be none whatsoever that any lover of Strauss’s
orchestral music who is new to it will certainly enjoy making its acquaintance
in this welcome new release.