Classical Notes

Richard Strauss Conducts

Mozart: Symphonies 39, 40 and 41
               Koch Legacy 3-7076-2

Beethoven: Symphonies 5 and 7
               Koch Legacy 3-7115-2

Gluck: Ihigenie in Aulis Overture; Mozart: Symphony # 40; Magic Flute Overture; Weber: Euryanthe Overture; Cornelius: Barber of Bagdad Overture; Wagner: Flying Dutchman Overture; Tristan und Isolde Prelude
               Koch Legacy 3-7119-2

The Berlin State Opera Orchestra (1926-1928)

If a picture is worth a thousand words,treble clef graphic then certain old classical records must be worth at least a few million.

So much has been written of the performers of the past, but the authors had no choice but to express their impressions in vague literary generalities that are of little help in reconstituting an aural image of the performers' artistry. And yet, despite this inherent drawback, the permanent authority of the critics' written words endured while fuzzy memories of the evanescent music lapsed. Given a choice between the two, there was little question as to which would be deemed more credible.Strauss Conducts Ironically, technology has now restored the proper balance, and it is sound, rather than paper, which forms the genuine literature of music of the past century. This is as it should be, as records free us from the tyranny of connoisseurs; with the raw material on hand, we can all form our own judgements.

All of this is to say that Richard Strauss was perhaps the most unfairly maligned of his generation of conductors and that the new CDs permit an essential correction of this slight. Admittedly, Strauss's poor reputation is largely his own fault. He was, to put it mildly, a wise guy who advised, among other things, that woodwinds should never be heard, that a conductor should never perspire and that audiences tend to fall asleep when they cannot understand a text. His microscopic beat and breakneck tempos (reportedly tearing through the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in 45 minutes) were attributed to laziness and his preoccupation with fees offended those who felt that greed was an inappropriate emotion in the arsenal of a true artist.

The censure of the past has been perpetuated by modern critics. In The Great Conductors, Harold Schonberg calls Strauss's records "disgraceful.Strauss Conducts Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7 He races through the music with no force, no charm, no inflection and with a metronomic rigidity." All this sounds reasonable enough on paper, and, after all, why should a humble reader ever want to doubt a distinguished musicologist's authoritative aspersion? Strauss's records, though, provide a compelling rebuttal and serve to vindicate his artistry.

The Koch CDs represent all of Strauss's recordings of works by other composers. (The best of his readings of his own famous tone poems and other music are collected on DGG 429 925-2, 3 CDs.) It is true, as the critics suggest, that the readings forego overt emotion, but what emerges instead is a solid sense of structure, letting the music speak convincingly for itself. It is also true that Strauss's tempos are generally swift, but this, too, contributes to the structural cohesion and in any event is fully in keeping with our modern outlook in which speed is a virtue and attention spans are defined more by MTV clips and news sound bites than by evenings at the opera and thousand page novels.

The only apparent hint of "laziness" is Strauss's tendency to link dynamics and tempo, a rather obvious and uninspired device by which he tends to speed up loud portions and slow down meditative ones in works of highly contrasted sections. Thus, the Mozart overture and the first movements of the Beethoven symphonies forego tasteful refinement for a vertiginous roller coaster ride (although, curiously, the remainder of the symphonies are far steadier).

The CDs contain one fascinating indication that Strauss's fast record tempos were due to the technical constraints of the 78 rpm medium rather than to an uncaring attitude. The first of his two recordings of the Mozart Symphony # 40 was issued in 1927 on 6 sides, requiring the finale to fit onto one.Strauss Conducts Strauss (He abridged the finale of the Beethoven Symphony # 7 for the same reason.) When Strauss rerecorded the Mozart in 1928, he insisted upon 7 sides in order to expand the finale. But at the same time he decelerated the fourth movement from 4:25 to 4:50, he also broadened the first from 5:22 to 5:32, the second from 6:53 to 7:25 and the third from 3:31 to 3:43. Thus, given the extra side to relax the finale, Strauss made corresponding changes in each of the other movements as well, even though there was no technical reason to have done so. It seems clear, then, that Strauss conceived the work organically; when he had to condense one portion, he adjusted the rest suitably. This, in turn, suggests that the first "rushed" version was mandated by technical constraints and did not necessarily reflect his artistic outlook. Thus, the records prove that Strauss was hardly the greedy automaton his detractors suggest.

The Koch CDs, then, demonstrate that Strauss left us with a small but significant legacy of conscientious artistry rather than a perfunctory discharge of an unpleasant but lucrative studio assignment, as past critics would have it. All the more reason, then, to buy the records and skip the books.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1994 by Peter Gutmann

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