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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Bürger als Edelmann (1912-1920) [35:00]
Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) [22:37]
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra / Terje Tonnesen
rec. Jar Church, Baerum, Norway, 2016

The idea of presenting Strauss’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme alongside Lully’s original version is most laudable and it is surprising that it hasn’t happened more often. In fact, this is the only available disc to couple the music by the two composers, music that is so inextricably linked.

An immediate question is: “how well does a single group of performers accommodate and meet the challenges set by two compositions that were themselves first performed nearly 250 years apart?” Much of the material may be common, since Strauss referred closely to Lully, but when each work was created the performing conditions were quite different, as were the two musical styles.

The answer to that rather awkward question is confidently provided here. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra is a ‘modern instrument’ rather than an ‘original instrument ensemble, but they play with abundant freshness and spirit, and – it needs be said – a stylistic appreciation that is wholly satisfying from a listener’s perspective. The musicians capture the true spirit of Lully, alongside the special flavour of Strauss’s neoclassical response, and they do it to perfection. For example, the mock-ceremonial of ‘Auftritt des Cleonte’ is perfectly managed, while the various dance elements transfer brilliantly across the centuries. It is intriguing to switch tracks and make the appropriate comparisons.

Music to accompany Molière's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme preoccupied Strauss for almost a decade. The poet and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with whom the composer had worked since their collaboration on Elektra in 1906, adapted the play as Der Bürger als Edelmann, intending it as part of a bold and unusual enterprise, the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos. This was his and Strauss’s thanks-offering to the director Max Reinhardt for coming to the aid of Der Rosenkavalier at its premiere in Dresden in January 1911, when the local producer had no idea how to stage the opera. Ariadne I, as it is usually known, was in three parts: the Molière play with incidental music by Strauss, then a linking scene in spoken dialogue followed by the opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Instead of the Turkish ceremony with which the original play ends, Hofmannsthal makes Monsieur Jourdain, the ‘bourgeois gentilhomme’, command an opera for the post-prandial entertainment of his guests.

This version, composed in 1911-12 and produced in Stuttgart that October, was not a success. It lasted too long, and the difficulties of combining a stage company and an opera company were only too apparent, as well as financially crippling. Within a year Hofmannsthal proposed jettisoning the Molière and converting Jourdain into “the richest man in Vienna”. He wrote an operatic Prologue, based on the original linking scene, in which the backstage preparations for the performance of the Ariadne opera are shown. This second version of Ariadne auf Naxos, first produced in Vienna, established the work in the repertoire.

However, this meant that the incidental music to the play had been lost. Hofmannsthal therefore proposed another reworking of Le bourgeois gentilhomme, to which Strauss rather half-heartedly agreed, but this proved a flop when it was produced in Berlin in the difficult wartime climate of April 1918. Strauss then rescued the music in the form of a concert suite, and conducted the first performance in Vienna, on 31st January 1920.

The Suite recreates the style and mood of the 17th century, but in a 20th century manner. The Molière atmosphere is established by strings and piano at the start of the Overture, and the special mood is maintained thereafter among many inspired movements. Some of these derive quite directly from Lully, as this issue admirably illustrates, while the provenance of others is different. For example, the minuet with which the Dancing Master gives a lesson to Jourdain is an elegant melody salvaged by Strauss from his own abandoned ballet Kythere of 1900, as is the Gavotte. Another minuet was adapted by Strauss from Lully's music for the original 1670 production, while Strauss again borrowed from Lully for the ‘Entrance of Cléonte’, who aspires to be Jourdain’s son-in-law. The eighth movement (Intermezzo) contrasts a courtly theme with another in staccato triplets.

In his finale, ‘The Dinne’r, Strauss is at his wittiest, with references that go way beyond Lully: there is a quote from Das Rheingold for the fish course, from his own Don Quixote for the mutton, and the dawn birdsong from Der Rosenkavalier for a dish of larks and thrushes. And for the omelette surprise, when the Kitchen Boy emerges from a huge dish and begins to dance, what could be better than a Viennese waltz?

This is a splendid issue that does full justice to two linked masterpieces from across the centuries.

Terry Barfoot

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