March 19, 2020


Richard Strauss: Symphony, Op. 12; Concert Overture in C minor. Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern conducted by Hermann Bäumer. CPO. $16.99.

Barbara Harbach: Orchestral Music V—Suite Luther; Arabesque Noir; Early American Scandals; Recitative and Aria. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Richard Strauss’s vast command of the symphony orchestra was not generally expressed in symphonies. Yes, there are Eine Alpensinfonie and Sinfonia Domestica, but despite their titles, they are really extended tone poems: it is tone poems in which Strauss most thoroughly explored and exploited orchestral textures without words – using the orchestra with similar skill in his operas. There are, however, two early Strauss symphonies that give an indication of “the path not taken” in his music while pointing in the direction in which he would choose to go with his compositions. These are very early works, written in Strauss’s teen years. The second, which is in F minor and was composed when Strauss was 19, receives a suitably large-scale and idiomatic performance from the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern under Hermann Bäumer on a new CD from CPO. The work’s key makes for an interesting comparison with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, also in F minor and first performed in 1878, six years before Strauss finished his work. The relentless drama that Tchaikovsky fully exploits in his symphony, the recurrent “fate” motif tying the whole work together – these are totally absent in Strauss’s symphony. Instead, Strauss strings together a set of largely independent segments and connects them forcefully by essentially pushing them into proximity rather than developing them in any meaningful way. The first three movements are recalled to an extent in the finale, but not in the carefully organized fashion of Bruckner (whose Symphony No. 7 dates to roughly the same time as Strauss’s F minor) and certainly not with the dramatic substance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Strauss basically mixes a big thematic pot, takes it in directions that interest him, then caps the whole work with a hymn-like conclusion. The result is a work that is intermittently effective while pointing in interesting ways to the manner in which Strauss would later structure other music. The symphony’s Scherzo, for example, harks back to Mendelssohn to a certain extent while taking the earlier composer’s notable lightness into far darker and rhythmically more-complex directions. The F minor symphony is unlikely ever to become standard-repertoire Strauss, but it is a fascinating source of insight into what the composer adopted from earlier music and what new directions he was already beginning to explore. Something similar is true of the Concert Overture in C minor, another work written when Strauss was 19. It starts as if it will pay homage to Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture but quickly moves in other directions, never quite settling in any formal way and even including an unexpected fugue. Strauss was later to write programmatic pieces tied much more tightly to specific events or individuals, but this overture, perhaps because it has no program attached to it, seems to drift rather than build to its eventual major-key conclusion. It is a suitable juxtaposition with the symphony (which ends in the minor) and offers further insight into ways in which Strauss, early in his career, was already seeking his own path by learning from the past while refusing to repeat it.

     Barbara Harbach (born 1946) has long since established her own way of using the orchestra for expressive purposes. And the four world première recordings on a new (+++) MSR Classics CD seem, on the surface, to have something in common with the works of Richard Strauss, all being illustrative explorations of specific topics (although in the form of suites rather than in that of tone poems). Suite Luther is the most interesting of the pieces here, building its five movements on three of Martin Luther’s hymns: Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, notably used by Mendelssohn in his “Reformation” symphony and a favorite of other composers as well; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (“In peace and joy I now depart”); and Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (“From deepest depths I cry to thee”). The comparative familiarity of Ein’ feste Burg helps make Suite Luther approachable and intelligible – this hymn appears in three of the five movements – and Harbach finds some interesting ways to develop her material, whether in the outgoing opening Motet movement, the introspective fourth movement based on Aus tiefer Not, or the concluding celebratory reappearance of Ein’ feste Burg in the finale. A very general understanding of the historical and religious sources of Harbach’s Luther Suite suffices to make the work understandable and emotionally satisfying, and its mixture of contemporary rhythms and harmonies with those of earlier times produces a sense both of updating and of continuity with the past. The three other suites on this disc – which is very well-played throughout by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus – are also all well-thought-out but are not quite as satisfying, because all require considerable familiarity with the topics that Harbach seeks to explore musically, and none is completely satisfactory without that level of knowledge. Arabesque Noir tries to use melodies inspired by Arabic decorations to explore master/slave relationships in early United States history – a somewhat inelegant juxtaposition and concept. Harbach certainly knows how to create flowing, lyrical material, and does so to fine effect in this three-movement suite, but the sociopolitical gloss of the music is never apparent within the material itself and feels as if it has been superimposed on a work whose gentle and loving sections are its most salient characteristic. The four-movement Early American Scandals does not quite deliver what its title promises: there were plenty of scandals, political and personal, in the early years of the United States, but most of this piece is general in nature rather than tied to specific events or people. Again Harbach tries to depict elements of master/slave relationships, love and desire, in the first two movements. But the third and fourth are more interesting. The third, The Vulture Hours, has some especially well-handled woodwind writing (clarinet, bassoon, flute and oboe) as it explores middle-of-the-night torments of memory. The finale, a generally straightforward dance movement called Virginia’s Real Reel, is attractive in its comparative simplicity after all the fraught material that has come before. The last work on this disc is called Recitative and Aria and was inspired by Harbach’s thoughts about famed actor Edwin Booth, elder brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth. The Booth family also inspired The Vulture Hours in Early American Scandals, but that movement’s effectiveness is not specifically tied to Edwin or John Wilkes. Recitative and Aria, however, is specifically about Edwin Booth and is supposed to elicit emotions connected not only with his notorious brother but also with his wife, who died after they had been married for three years. The music has some effective moments – Harbach does wistfulness particularly well – but packs little emotional punch for anyone who is unfamiliar with its specific inspiration. Harbach is a skilled orchestrator who explores certain topics on a recurring basis, notably that of the history of the United States. Without knowledge of the specific elements of that history that interest Harbach, however, listeners will get less out of the music on this disc that the composer put into it.

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