Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Compositions of Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949) was a German composer, conductor, pianist, and violinist. Considered a leading composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras, he has been described as a successor of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt Along with Gustav Mahler, he represents the late flowering of German Romanticism, in which pioneering subtleties of orchestration are combined with an advanced harmonic style (text from Wikipedia). 

As with all posts dedicated to one composer, I will select my 12 favourite works, listed in chronological order. All depicted CD's are from my own collection.

Don Juan (1888)

Don Juan, Op. 20, is a symphonic poem based on the famous Don Juan legend. The work, composed when Strauss was only twenty-four years old, became an international success and established his reputation as an important exponent of modernism and vivid orchestrator. I like most of his many symphonic poems, but this one really stands out for me. The version shown above is by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Paavo Berglund on an RCA CD.

Tod und Verklärung (1889)

Tod und Verklärung (Death and transfiguration) opus 24 is a tone poem specifically about the death of an artist. It shows more influence by Wagner than usual. It has moments of fascinating beauty (perhaps most in the transfiguration theme, which Strauss would quote sixty years later in his Four last songs), but also moments that seem too spectacular and brilliant for the subject. Yet, Strauss himself said to his daughter-in-law on his deathbed: "It's a funny thing Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung ....." The version shown above is by the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel, on a CBS CD.

Morgen! (1894)

Morgen! (Tomorrow!) is the last in a set of four songs combined in Opus 27. The text of this Lied, the German love poem "Morgen!", was written by Strauss's contemporary, John Henry Mackay. For me this is the absolute highlight in the vast and excellent collection of Lieder by Strauss. It was originally composed for voice and piano, and arranged for voice and orchestra with violin solo three years later. Usually I prefer orchestral versions, especially when done by the composer himself as here, but in this case I stick with the first version I heard: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Wolfgang Sawallisch on a Deutsche Grammophon CD.

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895)

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (The merry pranks of Till Eulenspiegel) was originally meant to be an opera, and some of that comes back in the tone poem, which has more contrast in mood than usual. The themes are highly melodic and recognizable, and often intrinsically playful as fitting for the subject of the eternal prankster. The music takes us through his various pranks, his trial and execution - after which he still has the last laugh. This is film music before film was invented - I keep wondering why Disney did not include it in Fantasia. Without a doubt, this is one of the most important pieces in the history of the symphonic poem. The version shown above is by the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel, on a CBS CD.

Also sprach Zarathustra (1896)

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30, translated as 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra', is a tone poem. Almost everybody knows the first 2 minutes, almost nobody the last 32 minutes. A bit of an exaggeration of course, but also not that far from the truth. The fabulous opening Sunrise fanfare has become as iconic as the starting notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony, appearing in movies, TV series and commercials all around the world. The eight parts that follow are loosely based on chapters of Nietsche's treatise of the same name - of all of Strauss' tone poems, this is the one that is the least programmatic. And definitely one of the very best.  The version shown above is by the Wiener Philharmoniker under Lorin Maazel on a Deutsche Grammophon CD.

Don Quixote (1998)

Don Quixote, Op. 35 is a tone poem for cello, viola, and orchestra. Subtitled Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters (Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character), the work is based on the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. It is a unique specimen among the Strauss tone poems: set in theme and variations form, and with the main subjects (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) represented by one instrument each throughout (cello and viola). Excerpts from the Cervantes story are translated into music in the best Strauss tradition, sometimes witty (pizzicati suggesting the hero dripping wet after his boat sinks), sometimes hilarious (flutter-tongued woodwind representing the army of sheep he attacks), sometimes touching (DQ's death). The version shown above is by the Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi, with Raphael Wallfisch (cello) and John Harrington viola), on a Chandos CD.

Salome (1905)

Salome, Op. 54, is an opera in one act based on a libretto by Hedwig Lachmann (a German translation of the 1891 French play Salomé by Oscar Wilde. The opera is famous (at the time of its premiere, infamous) for its "Dance of the Seven Veils". Strauss composed fifteen operas, but this is the one that stands out for me. The version shown above is by the Wiener Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan, with Hildegard Behrens, José van Dam, Karl-Walter Böhm, Agnes Baltsa and Wieslaw Ochamn, on an EMI double CD.

Eine Alpensinfonie (1915)

Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) is Strauss' final symphonic poem, his longest, and perhaps his most ambitious, covering the climbing of a mountain, starting and ending at night. Strauss includes the typical parts of such a trip, the climbing, the waterfall, the alpine pasture, struggling through thicket and undergrowth, the glacier, the summit, the view, the change in weather, the descent, the storm and finally the sunset. It is an amazing tour de force, in which he utilizes all colours available in the enlarged symphony orchestra - and more. Majestic and essential - even if in the end, I prefer some of the more condensed symphonic poems of 20-30 years before. The version shown above is by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta on a London CD.

Horn Concerto No. 2 (1942)

Coming sixty years after his first Horn Concerto, the second (in E-flat major) looks back at those early days - it is unashamedly conservative, and highly effective. It has since become the most performed and recorded horn concerto of the 20th century. The version shown above is by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe, with Peter Damm as soloist, on an EMI CD.

Metamorphosen (1945)

Metamorphosen is a study for 23 solo strings. It has been widely believed that Strauss wrote the work as a statement of mourning for Germany's destruction during the war, in particular as an elegy for the devastating bombing of Munich, especially places such as the Munich Opera House. A few days after the completion of Metamorphosen, he wrote in his private diary: "The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom." (Wikipedia). In more than way, it is a retrospective, directly citing Beethoven and hinting at Mahler in parts. The version shown above is by the Vienna Philharmonic under Andre Previn on a Philips CD.

Oboe Concerto (1945)

The Concerto in D major for Oboe and Small Orchestra is one of the last works Strauss composed near the end of his life, during what is often described by biographers, journalists and music critics as his "Indian summer." It is a stunning piece - possibly my favourite oboe concerto of all time. The version shown above is by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan with Lothar Koch on a Deutsche Grammophon CD.

Vier Letzte Lieder (1948)

Vier Letzte Lieder (Four last songs) is a song cycle for soprano and orchestra. This work is often considered the swan song not only of Strauss, but also of the late romantic era of classical music in general. The songs on texts by Hesse and von Eichendorff are "Frühling" (Spring), "September", "Beim Schlafengehen" (When Falling Asleep) and "Im Abendrot" (At Sunset). All of the songs but "Frühling" deal with death and all were written shortly before Strauss himself died. They are suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness (Wikipedia). Personally, I think this song cycle is one of the most important and beautiful of all time. The version shown above is by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under George Szell on an EMI CD.

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