An Evening of Earthly Delights

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss: Gerard Schwarz (conductor), William Wolfram (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 6.3.2014 (BJ)

R. Strauss:Don Juan; Burleske;
Suite from Divertimento, Op. 86;
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier
(arr. Schwarz)

Unlike Hieronymus Bosch’s celebrated “Garden of Earthly Delights,” the all-Richard Strauss program featured in the second week of Gerard Schwarz’s return engagement with the Seattle Symphony was innocent of grotesquerie. Its delights depended rather on pure sensual pleasure from beginning to end of the evening.

When that matchless pianist-polemicist Glenn Gould, in a 1962 essay titled An Argument for Richard Strauss, described the composer as “quite simply . . . the greatest musical figure who has lived in this [i.e., the 20th] century,” he provoked a number of usually decorous commentators into vociferous disagreement. Yet, when you come to think about it, the other choices are again not exactly overwhelming, and this concert left me in no mood to dispute the point.

I had forgotten quite how rich the sheer aural sensuality of Don Juan is, but Schwarz achieved a performance of a beauty that was indeed overwhelming, as well as of stunning orchestral virtuosity. And at the opposite end of the program the suite he had assembled from the score of the composer’s most tonally luxuriant opera, Der Rosenkavalier, illuminated Strauss’s incredibly fertile invention, for it offered a totally satisfying musical experience even though omitting reference to some of the loveliest passages in the opera.

Written when the composer was only 20, the Burleske for piano and orchestra thus dates from three years earlier than Don Juan, but already Strauss is starting to sound like Strauss, though here the expressive emphasis of the piece is more on crisply dynamic effects than on the warmth and lyricism that emerges in its middle reaches. Deftly set in motion by Michael Crusoe’s timpani, the performance did justice to both aspects of the music, and William Wolfram’s account of the solo part was of a quality that fully matched my memories of a performance some years ago by the redoubtable Emanuel Ax.

The least familiar piece on the program was a set of movements from the Divertimento Strauss originally conceived, in 1922, as a ballet. Based on harpsichord pieces by François Couperin, the music is as characteristically Straussian in its rich textures as Stravinsky’s spikier, Pergolesi-based Pulcinella is Stravinskyan.

Again, the performance realized the range of the music to excellent effect. All through the evening, we were treated to sumptuous tuttis, and to a series of fine solos from concertmaster Alexander Velinzon, principal viola Susan Gulkis Assadi, and their colleagues, most notably Ben Hausmann in the prominent passages Strauss wrote for the principal oboe. The horn section, too, led by Jeff Fair in Don Juan and the Rosenkavalier suite, and by Mark Robbins in the other two works, was exhilaratingly on song. And though Schwarz’s favored orchestral seating arrangement, with the second violins on his right, is of less consequence in Strauss than in the work of several other composers, most notably including Mahler, Elgar, Bruckner, and the earlier Austro-German classics, even in this program there were passages where it was helpful in clarifying the texture of the music.

Gerard Schwarz’s name is surprisingly absent from the Seattle Symphony’s 2014-2015 schedule. I certainly hope that the conductor laureate and former music director will be back again in following seasons, for he still has something very much his own and musically very valuable to offer both the orchestra and its public.


Bernard Jacobson