Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Classics: Mr. Strauss Goes to Italy


Zdeněk Košler conducts the Slovak Philharmonic in the first section, "In Campania," of the 22-year-old Richard Strauss's "symphonic fantasy" Aus Italien (From Italy).

by Ken

In the standard telling the 22-year-old Richard Strauss -- already Kapellmeister of the Munich Court Orchestra -- was encouraged by no less than Johannes Brahms to go to Italy, and if Brahms told you to go to Italy, you probably would too.

As with the Italian sojourn of young Felix Mendelssohn which produced his Italian Symphony (which we heard two weeks ago, followed by Tchaikovsky's string sextet Souvenir de Florence last week), Strauss's travels filled his head with music. He visited Bologna, Rome, and -- in the Campania region south of Rome (see the map at right) -- Naples, Capri, Salerno (which includes the town of Campagna), and Sorrento. The result was the sequence of four musical impressions he called Aus Italien (From Italy). When he performed his "symphonic fantasy" (generally counted as the first of his symphonic poems, his most characteristic orchestral form) with the Court Orchestra in March 1887, the reception was bordered on the disastrous. Interestingly, Strauss's confidence in the piece wasn't shaken, which takes a pretty darned tough set of musical balls.

I can't say I've ever been wildly enthusiastic about, or given enormous attention to, the piece, but approaching it again, listening with the sounds of the composer's long subsequent career in mind, I'm startled by the extent to which it's all there. In a not especially illuminating liner note for the original issue of the Kempe-Dresden recording, Ernst Krause referred to Aus Italien as "this early evidence of what was to come." This now seems to me to be putting it mildly.

The insinuating, shifting harmonies that shimmer and the tunes and melodic fragments that soar -- it's vintage Strauss. And it all moves so inexorably. This is music that's always in movement, and the ways of its movement effectively lay out the composer in his full career.

(In Friday night's preview we listened to the chunk of Act I of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier which includes the Italian Singer's possibly affectionate, possibly sarcastic aria. "Di rigori armato." The deep affection for Italy evinced in Aus Italien should at least answer any thought that blanket ridicule was intended.)


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