I’ve had Strauss on the mind lately. Richard Strauss, that is, not Johann the Waltz King – although, to judge from the waltz in Der Rosenkavalier, Richard could have gone in that direction had he so wanted.
It all started a few weeks ago, when I found out that I would be working for a couple of weeks in offices in central London. So, naturally, I looked to see what was on in London in the evenings during those two weeks. And I found, to my delight, that the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, was giving over a few days a series of three concerts of Strauss and Mozart. So I booked myself for all three of them. I mean, it would have been churlish not to.
Strauss has a bit of an odd reputation. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that it was Mahler, Strauss’ contemporary, who was the true genius, pouring out his tortured soul in works of emotional profundity and spiritual intensity, while Strauss was merely a showman, who cared more for effect rather than for substance, who often strayed into the crude and the vulgar – a sort of musical Barnum and Bailey. While I have no doubt at all about the stature of Mahler, I have never been at all happy with such an appraisal of Strauss. Yes, he was a showman, he could be crude and vulgar, and, yes, there are many works of his in which showmanship takes precedence over substance. But this is by no means the whole story. In the first place, showmanship need not preclude depth, or even artistic integrity; and in the second place, the composer of Elektra and of Metamorphosen deserves to be taken seriously – every bit as seriously, to my mind, as the unremittingly serious Mahler.
The three concerts included what Chailly has described as Strauss’ “core” tone poems, plus the late work Metamorphosen. Interestingly, Chailly does not include Don Quixote among this “core”, insisting that it was conceived as a set of orchestral variations rather than as a tone poem. And neither does he include the Alpine Symphony, a work which probably does lend credence to Strauss’ reputation of being a showman rather than a serious artist. Even some of the “core” works don’t quite, perhaps, dispel that notion – but the boundary between artistry and craftsmanship seems to me a very blurred one at best. And anyone who says something such as Ein Heldenleben is not a supremely beautiful and moving piece of music is a bounder and a cad, and can meet me afterwards in the car park outside.
Ein Heldenleben – A Hero’s Life – formed the second half of the first of the three concerts. In the first half, we had one of Strauss’ earliest masterpieces – the gloriously ardent and swaggering Don Juan. The orchestra played superbly: the sound was mellow, but deceptively so, as, at the dramatic climaxes, it packed a tremendous punch; but even at its most dramatic, the sound never lost its refinement, never became harsh. And no matter how thick the orchestral texture may be, the sound was never congested: there was always a sense of space around the various strands of the music.
Sibelius had once commented that Strauss provided his listeners with rich and exotic cocktails, whereas he gave the listener pure spring water. We need spring water as well, of course: going straight from one rich and exotic cocktail to another can become a bit too much. Here, the spring water was provided not by Sibelius, but by Mozart, a composer who was very close to Strauss’ heart. Between Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, the Gewandhaus Orchestra accompanied Maria João Pires in a performance of Mozart’s 27th piano concerto. It is a work often described as being a late Mozart work, and indeed it is – although we should keep in mind that Mozart was only 35 when he composed it, and that the works Strauss had composed at that age are regarded as his early works. It is a work of ethereal beauty: there seems something quite other-worldly about it. Gone is the exuberance and the drama of Mozart’s earlier piano concertos: where, previously, the second group of themes had contrasted dramatically with the first, here, they seem to complement each other. The music does indeed dance along gracefully, but the brilliance of Mozart’s dancing in his earlier works seems to have vanished, leaving behind a ghost of its former self. Huxley had once commented that Mozart’s music is saddest when it seems to be happy, but never has the happy surface been quite so transparent as it is here, revealing the depths below. It is a work that smiles, and yet breaks the heart, and I don’t think I could hope to hear it performed better than I did here. There is a passage in the first movement development section that is particularly close to my heart: the key changes come so frequently and so quickly, that it seems to give an impression of drifting between keys: I know of no other music quite like this.
After the interval, we were in a different world entirely: Ein Heldelben – A Hero’s Life. In many respects, it’s a work of utter megalomania: in the section labelled “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss gives us a collage of themes from his own earlier pieces, leaving us in no doubt as to who the hero of the title is. But I think that to criticise the work on this ground is to miss the humour: whenever I hear this piece, I seem to see a twinkle in Strauss’ eye, a wink and a nudge. Similarly in the second section of the work, which depicts the hero’s enemies: it’s a glorious cacophony of winds, suggesting to absolute perfection a band of snivelling idiots. One may ask what is so very heroic about defeating such a miserable bunch, but once again, this is to miss the humour of the thing. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but break into a broad grin when I hear this.
And then, there is the love scene. The hero’s companion is depicted by a solo violin, and the hero, in the form of the orchestra, woos her ardently; but she is no doormat merely to do the hero’s bidding. Time after time, the violin solo seems to be responding to the hero’s amorous overtures, merely to go off into intricate cadenzas and arabesques: this is a companion who is very much her own person, and with her own mind, who will respond to the hero as and when she wants to, in her own time, and in her own way. And when she finally does, we have a love scene like no other in music: Strauss gives us sounds so gorgeous, and so opulent and sensual, that it’s almost indecent.
Then comes the battle scene, in which the hero defeats his enemies. This is a section that could come over as overblown – but in this performance, it was genuinely thrilling. The orchestra of about a hundred or so players, including five percussionists (yes, five – I counted ‘em!) went at it hammer and tongs, and yet, somehow, they never compromised the beauty of tone. It was magnificent. And afterwards, the enemies vanquished, we move into the hero’s works of peace – a glorious collage of themes of Strauss’ earlier works. In Don Juan, there had been a thrilling moment when a swaggering horn fanfare had sounded over the massed orchestra: we had heard this only earlier that evening; well, since that moment was so wonderful, Strauss thought he would repeat it again in Ein Heldenleben: and no, it doesn’t suffer from the repetition – it remained just as thrilling.
How does one finish a work such as this? Strauss decided not to pile Pelion on Ossa (or is that the other way round?) – after all the thrills and spills, he opts for a quiet ending, as the hero, having achieved all that could be achieved, renounces worldly things. The music is extraordinarily moving and beautiful. Showmanship? Perhaps. Who cares?
The second concert was not really in the class of the first: this was nothing to do with the playing or the conducting, but because the programme wasn’t as good. It started with Strauss’ early tone poem Macbeth, and interesting though it was to hear this played live, it isn’t a patch on Don Juan, the opening piece in the first concert. The Mozart piece was the 3rd violin concerto, and, lovely though it is, and beautifully played as it was by Christian Tetzlaff, it is not in the same league as Mozart’s last piano concerto. After the interval, we had Also Sprach Zarathustra, and again, I couldn’t help wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this: isn’t the very idea of setting Nietzsche’s philosophy to music a bit of a joke? Once again, I couldn’t help seeing a twinkle in Strauss’ eye. And similarly with the section in which the Übermensch dances: what sort of music would an Übermensch dance to? Strauss makes him dance to a Viennese waltz, and, although the rest of the audience didn’t seem to find this particularly funny, I thought it was hilarious. The piece also has the very famous opening, of course; and the ending too is very beautiful. But for all this, it seems to me somewhat incoherent: despite all the lovely moments and beautiful passages, there is much that seemed to me a bit dull and uninspired. It was all great fun, I suppose, but whereas Ein Heldenleben had been more than just fun, this, I don’t think, was. Once again, this is not a comment on the performance, but on the music itself: there is no doubt in my mind that Strauss was a very great composer … but it’s fair to say, I think, that he was not always great.
For the third and last concert, there can be no doubt at all: it was, from beginning to end, utterly magnificent. It started with the magnificent Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration; the final section of this work, representing the transfiguration of the soul after death (or some such), is a gloriously opulent passage even by Strauss’ standards; my expectations were high, and the orchestra did not disappoint. After that came another of Mozart’s late masterpieces – the clarinet concerto. I must admit that, immediately after the ending of Tod und Verklärung, my ears took a bit of time to adjust to Mozart’s very different sound world, but once they did, it was utterly irresistible. The soloist, Martin Fröst, shaped and coloured each phrase exquisitely, and as we moved into the interval we were left wondering how anything could possibly come after this and not seem an anti-climax.
What came afterwards was Metamorphosen, one of my personal favourite works by any composer. It is a piece for 23 strings, an unbroken span of some half hour or so; it was composed by Strauss in his eighties in the years after the end of the Second World War, and it is a lament for the depths into which the culture had sunk in which Strauss had been steeped. Now, Strauss’ relationship with Nazism remains controversial: from what I can work out, he was, personally, a very decent and generous man, without any hint at all of racism or of anti-Semitism; but the unfortunate fact remains that, in his admittedly old age, Strauss did allow himself to be wheeled on by the Nazis as the great representative of the German Musical Culture. It was naïveté on Strauss’ part rather than anything else, and while such naïveté cannot be anything other than reprehensible, to label Strauss a Nazi, as some have done, does seem grossly unfair. But, be that as it may, Metamoprphosen is a great masterpiece. I went through a phase in my early twenties – not, for various reasons, the most cheerful years of my life – when I used to listen almost obsessively to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, and to this: its deep gloom and desolation, rising to uninhibited passion before subsiding once again, has long resonated with me, and listening to it live, and played and shaped so beautifully, was for me a particularly fulfilling experience.
The concert could have ended here, but they obviously wanted to end with a bang: so, to finish off, we had the hugely witty and exuberant Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss’ musical depiction of the prankster from Germanic folklore. It is a tremendous orchestral scherzo, and it was played with great verve and gusto: it brought the house down.
So, after all that … was Strauss a great musical genius, or just a showman? I incline towards the first option – how could the composer of Metamorphosen be anything but a genius? – but frankly, I don’t know that I care much. Genius or showman, this is music that I love, and I wouldn’t be without it. And that’s all that really matters.