Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra/Don Juan/Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche

In his long life of eighty-five years, Richard Strauss worked his way through a strong Romantic influence inspired largely by Richard Wagner, but also composed works that had a pronounced "modern" sensibility, as exemplified by operas like Der Rosenkavalier, Salome and Ariadne Aux Naxos.

Strauss was enough of a modernist to incur the suspicions of Nazi leaders, even as the composer tried to use his international stature to champion his vision of music after the Third Reich was established in 1933.  While he never left Germany, Strauss was increasingly alienated from the Hitler regime while trying to keep his Jewish daughter-in-law and his son out of concentration camps.  He managed to survive the end of World War II by four years and composed his last works in that horrible turmoil.

In his earlier years, however, Strauss developed some remarkable "tone poems" that, on this recording by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, drew inspiration from works by Friedrich Nietzsche (Also Sprach Zarathustra) and Nikolaus Lenau (an unfinished poem being the basis for Strauss' Don Juan) as well as the German folk tale of Till Eulenspiegel, which included comic elements that Straus reflected in his music.

Also Sprach Zarathustra has become famous for its opening theme reflecting the Persian poet, Zarathustra, arising to meet and talk to the sun and which was memorably utilized in Stanley Kubrick's path-breaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There's no question that this is a stirring, striking and awe-inspiring opening, though less than two minutes long.  The rest of the piece, however, is full of richness, complexity, contemplative melodies and powerful bombastic themes.  It is a powerful work from a master composer, who was still a young man of 32 when the work was finished in 1896

Don Juan was completed even earlier, in 1888, and established Strauss' reputation when it premiered in late 1889 in Weimar.  It was based on an 1844 poem from Lenau and concerns the end of the mythical lover's life when, thwarted in his aim to find the ideal woman, he decides to will his death.  This is another work of great complexity requiring superior technical facility for the instrumentation over the course of just under seventeen minutes.

Finally, there is Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche (Till Eugenspiel's Merry Pranks) a work from 1894-95, extending about 14 1/2 minutes and concerning quite a different type of legendary figure, one steeped in German folklore, though based on a real person, and possessing a comic and mischievous persona that fought against repressive authority figures, be they political or religious.  The music, comprised of themes for horn and clarinet, reflects a more playful and breezy style of performance than the other tone poems in this set.

This is another well-performed recording from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, in England and the quality of the recording is excellent.  The disc reflects the developing composer's efforts at building from the Romantic tradition but using newer compositional materials to provide a modern sound.  Future posts will cover some of Strauss' excellent operas.

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