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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Concert Review: The Easy Life in Garmisch

Leon Botstein explores the home life of Richard Strauss.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Symphonia Domestica: the Strauss family (Richard, Pauline, Franz) in the year 1910.
Photo © 1910 the Estate of Richard Strauss.
The American Symphony Orchestra's yearly Vanguard series is an opportunity for music director Leon Botstein to shine a flashlight into the dark corners of the repertory, unearthing rare (or in some cases, unheard) treasures for the pleasure of its Carnegie Hall audience. Wednesday night was Dr. Botstein's yearly excursion into the lesser-known repertory of Richard Strauss, the composer of tone poems and operas whose 150th birthday was celebrated earlier this year.
The program dealt exclusively with Strauss works that were based on or inspired by the composer's own home life: particularly his relationship with his cantankerous wife Pauline and his young son Franz. It opened with four intermezzi from his 1927 opera Intermezzo, itself a thinly veiled portrait of the Strauss marriage, spotlighting a 1902 incident when an entirely innocent ticket mix-up caused Pauline to consult her attorney about the possibility of divorce. (She relented, and they stayed together until Strauss' death in 1949.)

These intermezzi show Strauss at most descriptive. He opens with the hullabaloo of the household as "Storch" (Strauss' operatic doppelgänger) prepares to leave for Vienna, followed by an the elegant, almost-parody waltz at the winter resort where "Christine" spends her leisure time. Stripped of the vocal melodies that are a Strauss strength, this waltz was light as air and somewhat long-winded.

The second interlude was better, a depiction of Dreams by the Fireside. This poignant portrait of Christine/Pauline owes something to the more delicate pages of Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Strauss' easy orchestral virtuosity puts the string section to the test in a depiction of the composer's favorite card game "Skat." Violins and violas shuffled and dealt over a nervous accompaniment. The work ends with the showdown between husband and wife and its subsequent resolution, with a characteristic long Straussian coda winding to a major-key finish.

The next work on the program was the Parergon zur Symphonia Domestica, a work commissioned by pianist and Strauss family friend Paul von Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War One. The work itself is inspired by the "child" theme in the original Symphonia, and is meant to be a portrait of Franz Strauss at a later age following his battle with typhus. It is one of Strauss' least played creations, partly because of the severe technical challenges posed in its left-hand-only piano part.

The Parergon (which may have never been played in New York before) proved to be an example of the composer at his most stylish, contrasting a gloomy theme in the basses and low winds with the upward surge of the southpaw piano. In his first New York appearance, British pianist Mark Bebbington proved to be an eloquent soloist, managing the keyboard from both ends with stunning technique and melodism--all using only the left hand. Dr. Botstein drew sweet, round tone from the ASO players, with exemplary work from the horns and brass helping to bring the dark themes of the opening bars into bright sunlight.

The ASO augmented itself (quintuple wind and a quartet of saxophones) for the original Symphonia Domestica, a work that the composer himself conducted at its world premiere, held in 1904 at Carnegie Hall. Strauss' five-movement 45-minute tone poem offers a richly detailed portrait of the composer's home life. Strauss quickly establishes three leitmotiven, (a downward theme for himself, a surging, nervous upward theme for Pauline and a sweet melody on the oboe d'amore for Franz), and then uses these themes to portray a typical day at his villa in Garmisch.

The orchestra dug into the thick fabric of Strauss' orchestration capturing the bright energy of Pauline and the torpor of Richard, the master musician who simply wants the solitude to create. The  solo oboe played eloquently in the role of the child. Shrieking strings and swallow-dives in the woodwinds evoked the frantic cries of the younger Strauss, and a charming cradle-song (a violin solo by concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter) restored domestic harmony--just as seven chimes struck the hour of bedtime for little Franz.

This paved the way for the third movement, a serious self-portrait of Strauss the composer (shades of his earlier musical autobiography Ein Heldenleben) and a long, winding duet for the husband and wife themes that parodied the purplest passages of Tristan und Isolde. After this, the crisp fugue depicting the domestic squabble (itself built from key themes from earlier Strauss tone poems) allowed the orchestra players to demonstrate their best qualities, before the descending "Papa" theme emerged to establish mastery of this musical household.

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