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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Josephslegende, op.63, TrV 231 (1914) [58:16]
Love scene from Feuersnot, op.50, TrV 203 (1901) [5:40]
Festmarsch, op.1, TrV 43 (1876) [6:17]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 18-19 September 2012; 24-bit/96 kHz 5.0-channel surround sound
CHANDOS CHSA5120 [70:38]

Before 1988, Strauss’s score for the Diaghilev ballet Josephslegende - 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 from Robert Heger 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 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. 1 Festmarsch, 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.  

Rob Maynard
 

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