Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Classics: Glimpses of the musical depths of Richard Strauss


The YouTube poster doesn't explain what the heck this clip is beyond identifying the music (it's the "short version," starting at [3], of our Frau ohne Schatten selection) and the label "Bühnenbildmodelle von [Stage set models by] David Hockney" -- characteristically, pretty-ish pictures that don't have much to do with this opera, or much of anything else.

by Ken

Yes, the vocal excerpts we heard last night, and again above, are from Richard Strauss's sprawling epic Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow), written in 1914-17 in collaboration with his great librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Specifically, this is the end of Act I, where the curtain falls almost too literally on the two-and-a-half-year marriage of Barak the Dyer (the only character in the opera who has an actual) and his wife (known to us only as the F&aulm;rberin, or Dyer's Wife; the remaining principals are the Emperor, the Empress, and the latter's Nurse).

Our other selections last night were from Strauss's last opera, Capriccio, a "conversation piece" written in 1940-41 with a new collaborator, the conductor Clemens Krauss (1893-1954), nearly 30 years younger than Strauss, who in his remaining time (he wound up outliving Strauss by less than five years) became known as a notable Strauss specialist -- come to think of it, of the Viennesel Strausses as well. (He was the founding conductor of the institution of the Vienna New Year's Concert in 1939, and conducted all but the first two postwar ones, 1946-47, up till his death.) The Capriccio excerpts are very nearly the beginning and end of the opera: the sextet (composed by the character in the opera who is a composer, Olivier) and the "Moonlight Music," the interlude that sets the stage for the opera's semi-famous Final Scene.

I've been careful about approaching Richard Strauss, or maybe just fraidy-scared. We had a moment there, when the subject of death, or rather the finality of death, came up, and it seemed unthinkable not to call as an expert witness Strauss's King Herod from Salome, who testified to the monstrousness of the idea of some trouble-maker awakening the dead -- no doubt taking into account how many people he had personally moved from the "living" to "dead" column, starting with his own brother. It went like this:
Is it just a coincidence that two of Christoph Willibald von Gluck's three Vienna "reform" operas, Alceste and Orfeo ed Euridice, chronicled the two most famous breeches in Greek legend of the basic principle that once you're dead, you're dead? As noted, this principle was especially dear to King Herod, no doubt because he had personally moved so many people from the "not dead" to "dead" column.
from Richard Strauss's Salome:

JOCHANAAN (JOHN THE BAPTIST) [from the cistern in which he is imprisoned]: See, the day is at hand, the day of the Lord, and I hear in the mountains the footsteps of Him who will be the Redeemer of the World.
HEROD: What is that supposed to mean, the Redeemer of the World?
1st NAZARENE: The Messiah has come.
1st JEW [of Herod's five court Jews]: The Messiah has not come.
1st NAZARENE: He has come, and everywhere he is working miracles. At a wedding in Galilee he changed water into wine. He healed two lepers of Capernaum . . .
2nd NAZARENE: By simply touching them.
1st NAZARENE: He has also cured the blind. He has been seen on a mountain in conversation with angels.
HERODIAS: Oho! I don't believe in miracles. I have seen too many.
1st NAZARENE: The daughter of Jairus -- he awakened her from the dead.
HEROD: What? He awakens the dead?
1st and 2nd NAZARENES: Yes indeed, he awakens the dead.
HEROD: I forbid him to do that! It would be frightful if the dead came back. Where is the man at the moment?
1st NAZARENE: Sir, he is everywhere, but it's hard to find him.
HEROD: The man must be found.
2nd NAZARENE: It's said that he's in Samaria.
1st NAZARENE: He left Samaria a couple of days ago. I believe he's in the neighborhood of Jerusalem.
HEROD: Just listen: I forbid him to awaken the dead. It would be frightful if the dead came back.
VOICE OF JOCHANAAN: O, about this wanton woman, the daughter of Babylon, thus says the Lord our God . . .
HERODIAS: Order him to be quiet.

Bryn Terfel (b), Jochanaan (John the Baptist); Kenneth Riegel (t), Herod; Peter Rose (bs), 1st Nazarene; Uwe Peper (t), 1st Jew; Hanna Schwarz (ms), Herodias; Martin Gantner (b), 2nd Nazarene; Vienna Philharmonic, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded Apr. 11-18, 1994

That one time I suspended my worries about how to present the dimension in which Strauss's music stimulates and moves me more than anybody else's. Then last night we listened, and listened, to his most utterly joyful masterpiece, the tone poem Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. It's a piece I used to think was exuberantly indestructible, until I heard it destructed in concert, by a great orchestra under a quite prominent conductor (one I often admire). But even though I'm not going to make any attempt now to legitimately present that "other side" of Stauss tonight, I wanted to give you at least a glimpse -- in fact two glimpses.

It should be remembered that Strauss (1864-1949) was already 40 when, after two interesting but unsuccessful operas, he had his breakthrough with the then-scandalous Salome, adapted from the play (in French!) by Oscar Wilde. Strauss was well established by then, not just as one of the leading conductors of his time, but as a popular composer, principally of orchestral showpieces. By then he had written all of the great and not-so-great tone poems, culminating in the enormous (for tone poems) Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1895-96) and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life, 1898). Even the Sinfonia Domestica (1902-3) had been written.

That includes a lot of fine and justly popular music, but if that had been the sum of his musical legacy, I think we would have a very different image of him. Those orchestral showpieces of Strauss's 20s and 30s tend to be of a showy, two-dimensional character. In fact, the sardonic, impudent Till Eulenspiegel (written just before Zarathustra), which we heard Friday night, seems to me the most fully-dimensioned product of the lot. I suspect it's not a coincidence that it involves humor. As much as Strauss disliked musical sentimentality, his sense of humor could provide excellent camouflage, even when he became braver about exploring genuine human depths. (One of these days we will talk about the opera of his that was apparently his favorite, Ariadne auf Naxos, where he could freely express the deepest feelings because it was all encased in a setting of parody.)

As I tried to suggest, two of the brief excerpts on our program last night are music that, no matter how short I might try to make my short list of the most beautiful music ever written, could never be eliminated. You've probably guessed that the end of Act I of Die Frau ohne Schatten is one of them. Let's come back to that after we consider the Capriccio excerpts.


It's a relief that we're not going to be talking about Capriccio at length, because after some 45 years of playing with the damned thing, trying to look and listen from every angle, hitting it with a wrench, applying every technique I can think of, I have to report that I still really don't get it.

Let's listen to the two excerpts again, this time from a radio performance of the opera conducted by the rarely predictable Georges Prêtre which comes closer than any performance I've heard -- with quite a sympathetic rendering of the central role of the Countess by Felicity Lott -- to making me believe in more than a patch of the thing here and there. Here first is the Introduction.

R. STRAUSS: Capriccio, Op. 85:
Introduction (Sextet)

Southwest German Radio (SWR) Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, 
Georges Prêtre, cond. Forlane, recorded live in Mannheim, May 29-31, 1999

It's obvious -- isn't it? -- that it isn't the Introduction that I love, although Prêtre plays it much faster than anybody else I've heard do it, and that really does help. As we discover once the opera begins, the Introduction is in fact a sextet composed by one of the characters, the composer Olivier. (Ostensibly the opera is about which is more important in opera, words or music, but also who is the more suitable suitor for the Countess, the poet Flamand who writes words or the composer Oliver who writes music. But please, let's not go there just now.) I know there are people who consider this music of ineffable beauty. I've seen, or at least heard about, people swooning over it. After, as I say, 45 years of listening to it, all I hear is a bunch of notes. The lickety-split tempo of this performance seems to me all to the good. It dispenses with the illusion of deep feeling, but it at least, thank goodness, gets on with it.

There's a theory that in later his years Strauss suffered a withering of his uniquely rhapsodic, long-spanning melodic genius, and it seems to me you couldn't disprove it by the Capriccio Introduction, which seems to be trying desperately to convert those damned notes to stirring melody. Even forgetting, though, that Strauss had yet to compose what would be published as the Four Last Songs, where all the melodic genius seems to me pretty intact, in Capriccio we eventually come to this:

R. STRAUSS: Capriccio, Op. 85:
Moonlight Interlude

Southwest German Radio (SWR) Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, 
Georges Prêtre, cond. Forlane, recorded live in Mannheim, May 29-31, 1999

This interlude sets the stage for what's known as the Final Scene, in which the Countess, left alone in her salon with moonlight streaming in, agonizes over the choice she must make by morning, again ostensibly between words and music, between Flamand and Olivier, though surely something more personal must be at stake, along with the problem of discarding a rejected choice. "Doesn't one always lose if one wins?" the Countess will reflect.

I'm sure the "Moonlight Interlude" didn't have the effect on me it has now the first X number of times I heard it. But unlike the Introduction, it gradually imprinted itself in my brain, and spirit. In that spirit, here are a couple more performances:

Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded November 1985

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, cond. Orfeo, recorded April 1999


Again, sensible discussion of the opera itself is out of the question here. We're in the exceedingly humble abode of Barak the Dyer and his wife, in a city somewhere in the South Seas, with their marriage in crisis. As mentioned, Barak is the only character in the opera who has an actual name, and he's the character whose rich humanity is slathered all over the stage. In normal life, no matter the trial, no matter the burden, he's always good-humored and generous, whereas his wife is always bitching and whining.

Bitching and whining are rarely attractive, and it's all too easy for the Dyer's Wife to emerge as an unsympathetic character. This seems to me all but fatal for the opera. After all, she's got plenty to bitch and moan about. Yes, Barak works hard, but otherwise most of the burden of his limitless generosity falls on her: living in such squalor, acting as servant to his three hideous brothers -- and anyone else to whom he offers generosity. There are awfully good reasons why she's tempted by the offerings lavished on her by the ruling-class swells who descend on her humble abode -- because, of course, they want something. In this regard, the Dyer's Wife of Christa Ludwig, of which we hear only a tiny sampling below (we'll hear more eventually, I promise) is one of the most crucial role assumptions I've ever heard. Note also in our clip below that her then-husband, Walter Berry, is in noticeably better voice than in the later performance we heard last night.
BARAK the dyer returns to his hovel of a home from the market to find that major changes have taken place.
BARAK [coming in the house with a heavily laden basket]: If I carry the goods to market myself,
I spare the ass that drags them for me.
[His wife gets up wearily, goes back to the bed, lifts the curtain, and says nothing. Barak comes to the front.]
A wonderful smell
of fish and oil.
Why don't you come and eat?
HIS WIFE: Here is your meal.
I'm going to bed.
Your bed is here now.
BARAK [becoming aware of it]: My bed here? Who did that?
HIS WIFE: Starting tomorrow two cousins of mine will sleep here,
for whom I'll make up a bed at my feet,
as my servants.
So is it said,
So will it happen.
BARAK: They told me
that her state of mind would be strange
and her deeds disconcerting
in the beginning.
But I bear it hard,
and won't enjoy my meal.
You spouses in the houses of this city,
love one another more than your lives,
and know: Not for the sake of your life
is the seed of life entrusted to you,
but only for the sake of your love.
Do you hear the Watchmen, child, and their call?
[No answer]
You spouses, who lie lovingly in each other's arms,
you are the bridge spanning the chasm,
on which the dead come back into life.
Blessed be the work of your love.
BARAK [hearing no response over his shoulder, stretches out for sleep]: So be it then.

starting at [3]

Alfred Muff (bs-b), Barak; Andreas Schmidt (b), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bs), and Kurt Rydl (bs), Watchmen; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. EMI, recorded 1987

Franz Grundheber (bs-b), Barak; Hans-Joachim Ketelsen (b), Matthias Henneberg (bs-b), and Andreas Scheibner (bs-b), Watchmen; Dresden State Orchestra, Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond. Teldec, recorded Nov-Dec. 1996

starting at [2]

José van Dam (bs-b), Barak; Wolfgang Schneider (bs), Gerhard Eder (bs), and Karl Nebenführ (bs), Watchmen; Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded 1989 and 1991

starting at [1]

Josef Metternich (b), Barak; Marianne Schech (s), his wife; Max Proebstl (bs-b), Karl Hoppe (bs), and Hans Hermann Nissen (bs-b), Watchmen; Bavarian State Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe, cond. Live performance from the Bavarian State Opera (Munich), Aug. 31, 1954

Walter Berry (bs-b), Barak; Christa Ludwig (s), Dyer's Wife; Charles Anthony (t), Robert Goodloe (b), and Russell Christopher (bs), Watchmen; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance Dec. 17, 1966


Around 1964 Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry recorded a wonderful LP of Richard Strauss scenes, including the great one for the Barak the dyer and his wife at the start of Act III of Frau ohne Schatten. To enable Berry to incarnate the truly unpleasant Baron Ochs in the great scene that concludes Act II of Der Rosenkavalier (1909-10), as the baron nurses his psychological wounds and even a (minor) actual flesh wound from the disastrous developments following the Presentation of the Rose, which formalized his affiancement to young Sophie von Faninal, Ludwig -- one of the foremost Octavians of that time, and later the finest Marschallin I've seen or heard -- took on the small but crucial role of the intriguer Annina, who brings the baron a letter that considerably lifts his spirits.

The great bass Alexander Kipnis, whom we heard recently singing Schubert's "Erlkönig" so characterfully, made what seems to me the ultimate recording of this glorious, hilarious scene. (I hoped I might find it on YouTube too, but no luck.) Nevertheless, the Berry-Ludwig recording is awfully good, with much better sound and, well, Ludwig!

R. STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59:
Act II conclusion: "Da lieg' ich" . . . "Herr Kavalier"

Walter Berry (bs-b), Baron Ochs; Christa Ludwig (ms), Annina; Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Heinrich Hollreiser, cond. Eurodisc/Tessitura, recorded 1964


It's a crude cobble job, this Rosenkavalier Suite, which I can't believe was put together by Strauss himself, though he let it be published without any indication that he didn't do it. Still, if you forget the crude joints, the music could hardly be more glorious.

R. STRAUSS: Rosenkavalier Suite

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, cond. BMG, recorded Feb. 6-8, 1995

Finally here are two suites of the Rosenkavalier waltzes arranged by their respective conductors, two eminent Straussians, an almost 18-minute one by Rudolf Kempe and an 8½-minute one by Fritz Reiner.

Dresden State Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI, recorded June 1973

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 15, 1957


The current list is here.

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At 4:01 PM, Blogger nycguy said...

Your line about Herod having personally removed so many from the living column to the dead one is so good that it makes me really sorry to have to tell you that you've got the wrong Herod. The Herod of the Salome story is Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great and successor to part of his realm.

See here:

At 9:31 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Oh, you mean there's another Herod?

I'm talking about this Herod, who had his niece Salome's father (his own brother) killed and then married his wife Herodias, and who has this response when he comes out on the terrace in Scene 4 (following the suicide of the young Syrian captain Narraboth, who killed himself after acceding to the request of the princess Salome, with whom he is smitten, to have the prophet Jochanaan brought out of his cistern to her, in violatiion of the Tetrarch's strict order, and watching her try to seduce him):

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
HEROD: Ah, I have slipped! I've slipped in blood! That's an evil omen! Why is there blood here? And this dead man? Who is this dead man here? Who is this dead man? I don't want to see him!

1ST SOLDIER: It is our captain, Sire.

HEROD: I issued no order that he be killed.

1ST SOLDIER: He killed himself, Sire.

HEROD: That seems strange to me. The young Syrian, he was very handsome. I remember, I saw his lustful eyes when he looked at Salome. Away with him.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When this Herod responds with such terror to the idea of the dead coming back to life, I don't think there's any question that he's taking it VERY personally. (It's only his terror of the prophet's apparent holiness that has kept him from having Jochanaan executed.)



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