Impassioned Performances of Contrasting Works by Richard Strauss

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss: Richard Harrington (speaker), Sinfonia Cymru / Gareth Jones (conductor), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 22.3.2014 (PCG)

StraussLe bourgeois gentilhomme, Op.60
Metamorphosen, Op.142


In 1912 Hugo von Hofmannshal, the poet who had already written the texts for Richard Strauss’s operas Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, prepared a German-language version of Moliere’s comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme for a production by Max Reinhardt at Stuttgart. For this performance Strauss was commissioned to provide not only incidental music, but also a one-act opera to replace Moliere’s original ‘Turkish ceremony’ which provided the final comic section of the play. Strauss, who was never one to turn down a challenge, obliged with a massive score including the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos which not only required the services of actors but also a full operatic cast including three world-class singers. The result was regarded as a success at its initial run, but since it also involved a large cast of actors was clearly impractical for revivals other than under festival conditions. Sir Thomas Beecham gave it in London before the First World War with actors from Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company (with Tree himself in the leading role of Monsieur Jourdain), but it has rarely been performed at full length since and the first recording of the score in this form only appeared in Kent Nagano’s two-CD set of 1997. In the meantime Strauss had extracted his opera separately in 1916, cutting it down and eliminating some of the superhuman demands on the singers (especially Zerbinetta) and adding a new Prologue to produce the opera Ariadne auf Naxos in the form we know it today.

For this performance Sinfonia Cymru jettisoned Strauss’s opera altogether and gave us simply the remainder of the suite which Strauss constructed from his incidental music, the form in which it is generally known and recorded nowadays. In order to supply dramatic context they engaged the services of Richard Harrington to deliver specially prepared introductions based on Moliere’s original (the authorship of which was unfairly uncredited in the programme). But one missed the opportunity to hear the couple of vocal items which Strauss excluded from his orchestral suite but which it would have been nice to hear in their dramatic place. Strauss’s music is generally a baroque pastiche in the style of the early twentieth century (but without Stravinsky’s iconoclastic ‘take’ on the style in Pulcinella, although the later work surely learned something from the trombone interjections in the music for the fencing master, delivered here with delicious vulgarity by Barry Clements). There are a couple of more substantial numbers including a dining scene which quotes a phrase from Wagner’s Rheingold as salmon is served. That quotation was not particularly clearly delivered here, although Strauss’s reference to the sheep in his Don Quixote during the lamb course came over well.

Before the interval the orchestra, with the string section somewhat enlarged, had given a heartfelt performance of Strauss’s late Metamorphosen, his final orchestral work. It is also the only work by Strauss with an overtly political programme (if one excludes his unfortunate dedication – subsequently suppressed – of one of his songs to Goebbels). His lament for the destruction of Germany’s musical heritage in the Second World War, and his rage against the “twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture” of the Third Reich, produced one of his most searingly emotional works. The gradually revealed quotation of the theme from Beethoven’s Eroica Funeral March (originally dedicated, of course, to Napoleon) is well known; but in this context it is also interesting to note the considerable development given to a distinctive phrase from King Mark’s monologue from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Strauss was not immune to unconscious plagiarism (he took some critical flack for the resemblance of one of the principal themes of his Alpine Symphony to Bruch’s First Violin Concerto) but it seems to me that the reference here is deliberate, particularly when one looks at the text at the recurring points of its use in Wagner’s original – “Why did you serve me without reward…Did my thanks seem so insignificant?” The sense of heartbreak here is palpable.

Metamorphosen, with its scoring for twenty-three solo strings, has never been an easy work to perform, and a number of early commercially recorded performances suffered from a scrawniess of tone which did the music no favours; in particular the writing mercilessly exposes the slightest discrepancies in tuning between the players. But there was not the slightest suspicion of that in this warm and impassioned performance, and the delivery of the concerto-like solo violin line by Benjamin Barker (equally impressive in the many similar solo sections of the Bourgeois gentilhomme music) had a real sense of poise and security. In the incidental music to the Moliere play, the playing had sparkle and gaiety, while not being devoid of affection and real romantic sweep (for example in the Minuet based on Lully’s music for the original Louis XIV stagings). Richard Harrington delivered his narratives – some of them declaimed over the music – with a nice sense of character and range of accents, and it was not his fault that the original plot with its satire on social climbers (still a plentiful source of comedy today – witness Hyacinth Bucket in the television series Keeping Up Appearances) has nowadays a somewhat dated feel of ossified class superiority. The vulgarity of Jourdain’s pretentiousness was not stinted, but the sense of affection and pity we should also feel for this haplessly swindled character was somehow muted.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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