RICHARD STRAUSS

1864-1949

There’s a video of Richard Strauss conducting, and he looks as passionate as a business executive presiding over a board of directors meeting of a company that’s been manufacturing paper clips and nothing else for fifty years. And as the conductor Jascha Horenstein responded when an interviewer asked him his impression of Strauss “the man” as opposed to the author of Der Rosenkavalier, “icy cold . . . icy cold.” True, true, I’m sure, but one musn’t pay too much attention to these negatives, good orchestras are extremely adept at getting to the core of a conductor’s heart and soul, the promising aura of an impassive maestro’s ways will not be lost, and to judge by the high percentage of expressively persuasive recordings, “live” and “studio,” made by that laconic fellow in the perennial (well, almost) bow tie, there was a visible flame there all right, a creative imagination of the highest order.

I for one have always felt strongly that the turn to major following the trudging yet noble procession launching the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh is very effective either sped up a bit, as if one had let go of a balloon primed for the heavens, or palpably slowed, to lengthen the arms of nostalgia in Beethoven’s soaring, intimate theme in clarinet and bassoon. Few elect one of these options, not of course literally specified in the score – don’t fail to notice, though, that Beethoven invokes here that telling and unmeasurable admonition dolce! — but Strauss in his Twenties Berlin recording is ready for nostalgia galore, or could it be sex in the sun?, caressing in the hay?, the music seems to rise to 80 degrees Fahrenheit at least. Well, whatever the case, the great Richard handsomely/warmly/delightfully elongates this theme in the major and we are much in his debt.

Come the scherzo of the Seventh and that trio with its l-o-n-g note repeatedly departed from and returned to, a passage that suggests a rubber band stretched and stretched until something-has-to-give, Strauss drops from Beethoven’s presto to a lesser speed about 32 beats (!) to the minute slower than Beethoven’s metronome marking for the passage – in the use of that infamous tick-tock aid Beethoven could, of course, be absurdly fast, as in the d. = 60 for the first movement of his Eroica Symphony – and the bonus in high suspense is grand.

A footnote here! Dear pedagogical Weingartner in his On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies is cautious as can be about that major theme in the second movement of the Seventh: “Care should be taken not to render this melody sentimental,” he pronounces, “it should be played in strict original time.” Oh, dear. But as for the trio of the succeeding scherzo, Weingartner here is almost in Strauss’ ballpark: “The assai meno presto is marked d. = 84, but the speed which this represents would greatly endanger an intelligent execution of the carefully notated first bar, and the trio would resemble a galop rather than the joyous yet deeply moving song which is here intended. The right time, to my mind, is just about twice as slow as that of the main section, and might have the metronome mark d. = 60.”

No detail in Strauss’ conducting is more fetching than the lapping of the string accompaniment beneath that suggestive oboe solo at Letter L in his 1939 recording of his own Don Juan with the Berliner Funkorchester, an effect barely registered in his version with the Staatskapelle ten years earlier. I really did a double take as a solo cello or maybe two seemed to be at work, hummy and vibrant, as this passage marked a tempo ma tranquillo came off the disc. A quick look at the score reminded this pleasantly startled reader that every fifth bar, in a kind of tidal ritornello, the octave-divided cellos launch an arpeggiated rise, pianissimo and handsome. For the Strauss of ’39 these were obviously to be heard clearly, and fragrantly as well. Either he has only one or two on a part, or he asked his full cello section to play so soloistically that the effect is that of a core cello sound as much as virtual melody.

The best of conductor Richard Strauss must also include his 1931 recording of Peter Cornelius’ overture to Der Barbier von Bagdad, so airy and glittering, a golden Pops performance. And better not to die without hearing his account of Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis overture from a couple of years earlier, a gorgeous Berlin Philharmonic performance with delicately shaded anguish alongside an intensity worthy of, say, Guido Cantelli. A trace of coolness might be found in the second theme of Weber’s Euryanthe overture, another Philharmonic document vintage ’29, but the nocturnal midsection has a poetic urgency to be reckoned with and the quicker chapter that wraps up the piece develops a huge head of steam. And not one qualm about a Fliegende Hollander overture of Wagner dated 1931: suave, pingy, graceful, with just the right dollop of unpredictability, this is as great a performance of this rain-soaked music as I’ve ever put on metaphorical poncho and galoshes to hear.

The credit side continues with several Strauss-by-Strauss performances, a sizzling 1936 version of the proto-Impressionistic Macbeth, a mellow, positively Viennese Don Quixote with the Dresdner Staatskapelle – this one “live” from London in ’36, a time of somewhat shadowed cultural exchanges in the pre-“Munich” era – and a ’39 Berlin Tod und Verklaerung in which the furioso and molto agitato passages don’t conceal their desperation and the sweet meno mosso thereafter is taken very slowly indeed, giving lovely string and wind solos plenty of space. The Strauss-piloted Till Eulenspiegel from a decade earlier is a very funny performance, sneezing, diddling, galumphing. But a sister recording, the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, is so “objective” it almost hurts. Scarcely a trace here of the lustful lingers, the whole delightful encyclopedia of little depravities plainly audible in Otto Klemperer’s recording from the same era in naughty Weimar Berlin.

Several bones to pick with Strauss’ Zauberfloete overture of Mozart from ’29: those shot-in-the-dark sforzandos at the fifth and seventh bars of the introduction are too alarming by half, and an element of singsong sullies the dash of the ensuing allegro, with a seesawing of tempo between the lyric and cadential measures of the second subject serving neither the cause of drama nor the muse of grace. Where has sensitivity fled? But we musn’t forget: even if that laconic fellow in one or another bow tie teetered now and again on the brink of shallowness, tempted by what that rather good Straussian Ernest Newman has called “some queer kink of indolence and cynicism,” here was a conductor of infinite finesse, exciting technique, quite considerable charm. And he wrote Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme . . .

Now attention, I’ve just come across Strauss’ 1926 recording of his Heldenleben with an echt-mellow Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. No surprise really, this is a light, sweet, kammermusiky performance, a great scherzo almost, absolutely organic except perhaps for the broad-paced, shoulder-to-the-wheel battle scene. Gravitas is so outlawed even some of the great Heldenlebens of Strauss’ podium brethren seem to pound their breasts in comparison. Well, this hero knows very well he’s a hero, what’s the fuss, and anyway, he has to see about upping that paper clip production over at the factory! Well — and I’m dead serious here — the soprano Viorica Ursuleac had a very interesting insight when she was rehearsing the premiere of Arabella with Strauss and she found his conducting way too fast for the emotional content of the music. He was, she felt, plainly embarrassed by the sensuous beauty he’d created, his world of rapture, as if maybe his opera was somehow the artistic equivalent of sexy underwear. Here was this craftsman of the heart — not unlike the brilliant medico who can’t cure his children because he’s too emotionally involved — stumped by his progeny.

And sopranos and orchestras would, of course, have to cut through his discomfort!