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Strauss metamorphoses NMM100
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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegel, einmal anders (1895) (transcribed for quintet by Franz Hasenoehrl) [8:51]
Sextet extract from Capriccio, Op. 85 (1942) [10:40]
Serenade in E-flat major, Op. 7 (1881) [9:53]
Metamorphosen, TrV 290 (1945) (transcribed for string septet by Rudolf Leopold) [29:10]
rec. November & December 2019, Philharmonie de Paris

The hour’s worth of chamber music on this disc, presenting four pieces spanning 64 years of Richard Strauss’ career – virtually its entirety – ostensibly presents an enticing prospect for devotees like me.

However, I have to say that I question the value of the five-piece reduction of Till Eulenspiegel compared with the experience of hearing the work in its full orchestral glory; the arrangement runs to only half the length of the original and sounds oddly under-nourished, even though it is admittedly superbly played by the soloists from the Orchestre de Paris. I cannot see my returning to it when I can hear the real thing. Moments of high drama such as the judge’s stern admonition and Till’s apologetic replies are, inevitably, comparatively underwhelming and his lamentable fate is truncated.

It is thus a relief to turn to the sextet from Capriccio, played as Strauss composed it, as a strikingly soulful curtain-up to what remains a supreme masterwork. My comparisons are with recordings by the Raphael Ensemble made in 1993 and a considerably more leisurely one by the Brandis Ensemble on their 1998 recital for Nimbus, which also features my recommendation for the string septet arrangement of Metamorphosen as per my survey of that work. I have to say that I find both of those accounts more rapturous, flexible and engaging than that of Le OFF here, whose rendering I find at first oddly nervy, with a strangely erratic rhythmic pulse, but which gradually settles down to provide a very satisfying account.

Strauss’ wind Serenade Op. 7 is by far the earliest work here, written when the composer was still a teenager, yet it already bears the hallmarks of Strauss’ later lyrical and rhapsodic style; the richness of the textures he evokes in the orchestration, too, is prescient of his mature works. It is in fact the largest-scale work here, involving thirteen instrumentalists and the influence of Strauss horn-playing father is apparent in the prominence given to no fewer than four horns, imparting a special depth of sonority. This is a charming account of a work which will never be counted as major Strauss but merits the occasional outing.

Metamorphosen is given a passionate, deeply felt, beautifully controlled rendition here. although the instruments are recorded so closely as to give them a bit of a harsh edge and render the performers’ breathing rather prominent – at least, on headphones. Otherwise, the recorded sound and balances throughout are very fine, as is almost invariably the case nowadays with modern digital sound engineering.

The notes in the eight-page booklet inside the slim cardboard packaging are minimal, to say the least, providing a scant 150 words about the music itself and a couple of hundred words about the Paris ensemble; ditching the blurry, presumably “arty”, colour photos and providing more information would have been welcome, especially as the claim is made that Strauss’ chamber music is neglected.

As much as I admire the virtuosity of the performers here, I don’t feel that I can wax enthusiastic about this rather odd hodgepodge of Strauss works – although the fine performance of Metamorphosen alone might justify its acquisition by any lover of Strauss who does not yet own the chamber arrangement.

Ralph Moore

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