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Franz Liszt started it with his ‘Symphonische Dichtungen’, otherwise known as ‘Symphonic Poems’. Richard Strauss had the same interest in programme music, but used the term ‘Ton Dichtungen’. That phrase – bear with me - has been translated time and again into English as ‘Tone Poems’; but that is of course completely wrong. The German word ‘Ton’ means ‘sound’, whereas the English word ‘tone’ has, in a musical context, three meanings: a single musical sound; the timbre or colour of an instrument or voice; and the distance of a step of two semitones from one note to another, e.g. C to D. Join me in my campaign for a better translation, which would be very simple: ‘Sound Poems’ – et voilá!
These ‘sound poems’, then, were written during a substantial chunk of Strauss’s career, from Aus Italien of 1886 through to the Alpine Symphony of 1915. Then – he stopped and never wrote another one. In fact, Strauss composed almost no purely orchestral music after 1915 until his ‘Indian Summer’ (roughly 1942-49), with pieces including the Oboe Concerto, the 2nd Horn Concerto, and Metamorphosen (which itself appears on CD5). In between times, he concentrated on opera, and was, to say the least, also rather busy with his Directorship of the Vienna Opera from 1919 until 1924.
The French conductor François-Xavier Roth was chief conductor of the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (now mercifully just SWR Sinfonieorchester!)
from 2011 – 2016, and in that period, his work conducting concert performances and recordings of Strauss orchestral works was a major project. Now we have them for the first time boxed all together under the orchestra’s own SWR Classic label, making it possible to see what an impressive achievement this is.
There is no doubt that the SWR orchestra is one of the finest in Germany – world-class in fact – with a pedigree going back nearly sixty years, and music directors including such major figures as Hans Rosbaud and Michael Gielen. You need a virtuoso orchestra to do full justice to this music, and that is exactly what you get in this collection.
The works themselves; well, they’re a mixed bag. The early ones, from Don Juan of 1888 to Till Eulenspiegel of 1895, are magnificent examples of their kind, and showcase Strauss’s brilliant deployment of his orchestral forces. By this time, he was already becoming famous as a conductor, and has since been recognised as one of the greatest of all orchestrators, along perhaps with Berlioz and Ravel. But although his orchestral skill remained intact, the later sound poems became prolix and too lengthy, while the ‘private life’ episodes in Symphonia Domestica are just a touch embarrassing – bathing the baby, for heaven’s sake!
Getting all these big-boned works onto just five CDs was a challenge, which is why there is no kind of consistent time-line here, though it was absolutely the right decision to leave Metamorphosen – not a ‘tone poem’ at all of course - to the very end of CD5, giving it the feeling of an epilogue to the whole set.
CD1, then, has two recordings from 2012, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) and the earlier Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). The first is a large-scale piece divided into six sections. These are separately tracked, which is helpful, though the titles of each section are in German. (Given that the booklet notes are translated into English, surely it wouldn’t have been too much trouble also to translate movement titles? In descriptive works such as these, it really does matter).
Ein Heldenleben could be described as a tongue-in-cheek spectacular. It takes a ‘hero’ (i.e. the composer himself, we soon discover) and charts his rise to glory. Having witnessed the defeat of his carping critics in a massive pitch battle, we are then treated to The Hero’s Works of Peace (a pot-pourri featuring snatches of earlier works), a final brush with the critics, and a concluding love-duet between Mr. and Mrs. Strauss (horn and violin). Anyone who believes this is straight self-aggrandisement doesn’t know Strauss’s personality and his strong sense of humour, and indeed is not listening closely enough to the music itself. There is plenty of entertaining characterisation here, both of those sharp-tongued critics (woodwind confusion, consecutive fifths in the tubas) and his feisty wife Pauline (violin cadenza). The section recalling earlier works is frankly tiresome, even to this Strauss lover, its only virtue being the opportunity for ‘spot-the-tune’. But the ending of the work is as cathartic as Strauss intended.
Roth, as in all these performances, is disciplined and controlled, while still giving the orchestra its head in the big moments. Yes - sometimes I did yearn for the sheer thick-carpeted luxury of the Berlin Philharmonic strings in the old Karajan recording (DG); but Roth’s clear sense of purpose won me over. Karajan’s most maddening fault was his occasional loss of a sense of the basic pulse of the music, a fundamental musical principle which he often ignores, particularly in slow music. Roth never does that, and is much the better for it.
That sense of purpose, and the momentum it brings, is much in evidence in Tod und Verklärung too. Though some ten years earlier than Ein Heldenleben, this is, for me, a far more serious and greater composition. It depicts – uncomfortably graphically in places – the struggles of a dying man, as he clings on to life, and re-lives his earlier life experiences. He dies, and begins his transfiguration and ascent to a higher plane. Strauss was of course famously atheist, and this is about as close as he came to writing a religious work.
This is, I think, the finest performance of all in this boxed set. Tod und Verklärung is arguably the most difficult of all Strauss’s orchestral works. It is incredibly demanding technically for every section of the orchestra, and has so many fluctuations of tempo and mood that need to be navigated with total commitment and sureness by the conductor. Roth supplies that, and by the end, I felt the whole arc of the work had been beautifully drawn.
On CD2, we find three works: one of the most popular, Till Eulenspiegel; the only one with a dominant solo part throughout, Don Quixote; and finally one of the least well-known, Macbeth.Till is sharply characterised, with woodwind especially effective in bringing out the cartoon-like humour. The principal horn of the SWR Orchestra does a wonderful job with his tricky solos too. The whole performance is superbly vivid, with a blood-curdling depiction of Till’s public hanging – and yet he somehow manages to end the piece safely in bed at home, as the gentle postlude tells us.
Don Quixote is a lengthier and more complex work. After an orchestral prelude setting the scene of Quixote’s encroaching insanity, the solo ‘cello enters, and depicts the Don himself, while the supporting role of his companion Sancho Panza is given to the solo viola. (There are also solos for tenor tuba and bass clarinet which go along with the viola, and which I’ve always taken to represent his long-suffering donkey). Strauss made the choice of casting the piece in variation form, with each variant depicting one of the Don’s delusional and accident-prone adventures. Strauss has a lot of fun with these, especially those representing the flock of sheep (which Quixote believes to be the invading army of Alifanfaron), and the attack on the windmills (seen as marauding giants).
Frank-Michael Guthmann does sterling work with the solo ‘cello part. It’s a strange one; it’s not a concerto part, very much ‘primus inter pares’ as in a sinfonia concertante. But there are passages, such as the elegiac finale, which really do need a soloist’s approach, and I felt Guthmann, who is principal ‘cello of the SWR SO, is well able to deliver that. I find the way he starts the finale (track 15) so softly, allowing it slowly to expand, is very touching and beautiful. I have always been devoted to the Karajan/BPO version of this, one of his very finest Strauss recordings, and with Pierre Fournier superb in the solo part. But this version is very much in the same class, and of course the Karajan was recorded back in 1966. My only disappointment was Roth’s slightly hurried tempo for the glorious F sharp major variation, depicting Quixote’s vision of an ideal land of chivalry – that’s one place where Karajan’s utterly sumptuous reading is, for me, superior.
This disc is completed by Macbeth, Op 23, the third of Strauss’s early ‘tone poems’. It is the least played of all these days, and, though it has some powerful music and is given a fine performance here, one can understand why. The story of Shakespeare’s play is too involved, with many plot turns making it unsuitable for programmatic treatment. Strauss’s most successful works in the genre have a clear structure, despite their complexity: the pictorial variations of Don Quixote, the arch shape of the Alpine Symphony, the life/death duality of Tod und Verklärung, and so on. Macbeth simply doesn’t lend itself to this treatment.
Also Sprach Zarathustra, which occupies the first half of CD3, is of course one of the most famous of these works. Famous, even notorious, but not perhaps truly well-known, because many people get no further than the sensational opening one-and-a-half minutes (thanks Mr. Kubrick!). Perhaps Strauss wasn’t so wise to start like this – the magnificent description of sunrise in mountainous scenery does give him an awful lot to live up to in the remaining thirty-one minutes. Roth and his orchestra give it the works – this is a brilliant performance of the whole piece, but it is I’m afraid your verdict on whether this is ultimately a successful piece of musical art. Sadly, for me, the answer is no, even if I do enjoy an occasional listening.
Oddly, the other item on this disc, Aus Italien (‘From Italy’) gave me more pleasure than Also Sprach, even though it is, firstly, not a ‘tone poem’ at all, but a four-movement suite, and secondly because it is probably the least-known of any work in this boxed set. Roth’s approach in bringing out all the colours and contrasts as vividly as possible makes it a delightful experience. The first movement, Auf der Campagna (‘In the Campagna’) is impressive in its mysterious opening harmonies, and sustains that elevated mood throughout. The remaining movements are more relaxed, though very attractive. The finale is rather hilarious, being a quite extended symphonic treatment of the Italian song ‘Funiculí, funiculá’. Strauss, unfortunately, thought this was an Italian folk-song, and thus free for anyone to use. It is not, of course; it was composed in 1880 by one Luigi Denza to celebrate the opening of the funicular railway up Mount Vesuvius. Strauss ended up in court paying royalties to Denza!
If the sunrise at the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra is pretty spectacular, the opening of the Alpensinfonie, which begins CD4, is even better. Strauss is brave enough to plunge us into musical darkness, which threatens to go on for ever as bassoons and basses grope about. Then the light grows, wisps of fog blow away, and the full glory of the alpine scenery is arrayed before us. (What a film composer Strauss would have been!) On this occasion, though, he is far better able to sustain the inspiration throughout than in Also Sprach. The division of the music into twenty-two scenes, some of them quite short, is closer to the episodic character of Don Quixote, and for this listener, it works very well, as the narrative power of the music carries us from one scene to the next.
Roth once again displays masterly control of the changing tempi, moods and textures, giving a tenderness and tranquillity to the quieter passages, while going for broke in the great tuttis and climaxes. All the essentials of this stunning score are there, with so many memorable moments. To name but a few: that great step-wise descending theme that wafts in at the end of track 7, as if we knew it was there all the time (which in a sense it was, because he nicked it from the Bruch Violin Concerto – but who cares?!); then those vertiginous downward swoops in the violins as the climbers contemplate the thousands of feet of mountain falling away beneath them; the unease of the Elegie (track 17) replacing the glories of the summit; those strange little high D flat squeaks in the oboe – the first ominous raindrops before the storm; and then that storm when it breaks out! This has to be the most sonically mind-blowing of any ever recorded. But it’s not just loud (it is loud!) – all the details are captured brilliantly, no mean feat by players, conductor and engineers alike. The organ in particular adds more to the texture here than I’ve ever experienced before. This is an utterly convincing Alpensinfonie. I am still devoted to Rudolf Kempe’s wonderful account from the 1960s with the Dresden Staatskapelle (available in a 9-CD set on Warner Classics); but this is the one I shall most want to listen to in the future.
Then – after a deep breath to recover from all that mountaineering – comes Strauss’s youthful masterpiece, Don Juan, written, almost incredibly, in 1888 when he was just twenty-four. And it is one of his most perfect works; episodic, describing the hero’s various female conquests, but always with that fatal upward curve of hubris. This is a fine performance, the tuttis hurtling along recklessly, but with very beautiful playing from, for example, solo woodwinds and horn, in the beautiful G major episode (track 23, around 6:30).
And so on to the final disc of this very fine set. I’ve already indicated that I have severe reservations about Symphonia Domestica. Strauss wrote a detailed programme for the piece which was published prior to the work’s premiere in the USA. He was roundly criticised – though the music is a lot better than its programme! – and even the great critic Ernest Newman, a Strauss admirer, was scathing in his write-up. Indeed the composer was sternly advised by his friend, the dramatist Romain Rolland, not to publish the programme before future performances – advice which Strauss grudgingly accepted.
All of the composer’s mastery of orchestration, counterpoint and melodic invention is present; but everything feels rather superficial and contrived. Quite why it was that Strauss at this stage in his career became convinced that the musical public was consumed with interest concerning his domestic life is hard to understand. But thank heaven, he seems to have seen the error of his ways, and later on in the Alpensinfonie he avoided that trap.
But whatever the work’s weaknesses, the conductor and orchestra do their very best to convince us of its redeeming features, and there are lovely moments, such as the references to Mendelssohn’s ‘Venetian Boat Song’, from his Songs Without Words for Piano. But for me, this final disc is rescued by the inclusion of that masterpiece for strings, Metamorphosen. This doesn’t really belong in a box devoted to the ‘tone poems’; it is not a programmatic or even descriptive work. It is, though, a work of the profoundest sadness, written in the last days of WW2, as Germany hurtled towards defeat and ignominy. It is a kind of Elegy for the whole of German culture, prompted specifically by the destruction of Munich Opera House in an allied bombing raid. That beautiful building, restored after the war to its former glory, was the scene of some of Strauss’s most formative experiences, both as listener and conductor, and its reduction to rubble wounded him deeply.
It is a much recorded work, with fine readings from Karajan with the Berlin PO (DG), Rattle with the Vienna PO (EMI Classics), Kempe, again, with the Dresden Staatskapelle (Warner), and a surprisingly fine one by the Academy of London with Richard Stamp (Virgin). My own introduction to the work was by means of an LP of a live performance from 1947 by the Berlin PO under Furtwängler. I don’t know if this has ever been transferred to CD, but is certainly worth hearing if it has been. The sense of devastation is palpable; the audience’s coughs echo throughout the first minutes, then fall silent as the piece unfolds. Full of imperfections of ensemble – even one passage where most of the orchestra are lost and floundering for some minutes! – but emotionally overpowering just the same. This current version is a very beautiful one; Roth is sensitive to every nuance in this incredible score, and the excellence of the recording allows the teeming details to be heard, without losing the overall picture. The piece is fully titled ‘Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings’, but it of course works like a concerto grosso, in that the passages where every player is a soloist alternate with sections where the full ensemble comes together.
With music as wonderful as this, we are all liable to develop our personal favourites that we will always remain loyal to. But it is hard to imagine a conductor and orchestra who could bring greater commitment and sheer intensity to a collection such as this. As you can see from the dates above, the CDs were issued over a period of four years or so; but the standard of playing and direction is high from the first to the last; a tremendous achievement by all involved.