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Gewandhausorchester Leipzig: The Strauss Project Part I

Andris Nelsons with his arms raised. He's holding a conductor's baton in his right arm, and he appears to be coming out of the black background.

Tonight’s concert begins with one of Strauss’s earliest mature works, a piece in which he first enthusiastically embraced the musical style that would bring him such success, writes David Kettle.

Richard’s father, Franz Strauss, was the eminent principal horn at the Bavarian Court Opera (now the Bavarian State Opera) in Munich, and had steadfastly supported his son’s remarkable musical endeavours – but had warned him away from such dangerous radicals as Wagner and Liszt, lest they exert too much of a decadent influence on the young man’s music.

At first, Richard concurred. But in 1885, things changed. Two years earlier he’d been appointed assistant to the eminent conductor Hans von Bülow at the Meiningen Court Orchestra, and in 1885 got to know Alexander Ritter, one of the orchestra’s violinists, who became a firm friend. It was Ritter who lured Strauss away from the safety of conservative musical traditions and encouraged him to explore the far more perilous, unpredictable, free-thinking world of Liszt and Wagner. Strauss called it a ‘completely new path’, and vowed to invent a new musical form for each story he wished to convey.

Macbeth was one of his first attempts in his brand new language, and predictably, plenty of toil and trouble went into getting it right. He showed an initial draft to von Bülow, who wasn’t impressed, and went on to create two more versions before arriving at the work we know today, which was premiered in 1890. Though the piece clearly conjures the world of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, Strauss left no specific description of what he intended his music to represent. Nonetheless, it’s not hard to discern contrasting themes for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after the work’s opening fanfares, nor the arrival and murder of Duncan, Macbeth’s coronation, and a final breakdown for Lady Macbeth before a bright victory for Malcolm and Macduff.

We jump ahead two decades for tonight’s next piece, and in that intervening period, Strauss’s music had taken enormous leaps forward too. His reputation was cemented by his wildly decadent operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), which scandalised and titillated audiences in equal measure. But in his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) Strauss veered away from outrage and moved instead into gentle, sophisticated comedy. The middle-aged Marschallin is having an affair with dashing 17-year-old Octavian, but when the boorish Baron Ochs co-opts the young man to deliver his own marriage proposal to the youthful Sophie (by offering her a silver rose, hence the opera’s title), Octavian and Sophie end up falling for each other.

Critics hated Der Rosenkavalier, but audiences loved it, and it made Strauss a lot of money. He capitalised further through the orchestral music he extracted from the opera, though the Rosenkavalier Suite most often performed today was probably put together by New York Philharmonic conductor Artur Rodziński, and published with Strauss’s approval in 1945. It brings together the opera’s key moments, though not in narrative order.

We begin with stormy love-making from the Marschallin and Octavian (those whooping horns leave little to the imagination) before the music calms to find them in post-coital bliss. The Suite then jumps to Octavian’s presentation of the rose to Sophie, and the two young people fall in love to a touching oboe melody and sparkling harmonies from flutes, celesta and harps. We then jump back to a waltz tune in which Baron Ochs brags about his impending engagement to Sophie, before music from the opera’s concluding trio in which the Marschallin releases Octavian, and the young lovers sing their rapturous duet. The Suite concludes with more boisterous music as Baron Ochs is chased offstage by his creditors.

From Strauss the pioneer to Strauss the operatic romantic to – well, Strauss the hero? Though he never quite came out and said that the subject of his Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) was himself, it seems fairly obvious that that’s the case. He admitted that the long, capricious violin solo in ‘The Hero’s Companion’ was a portrait of his wife Pauline, and ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ is a tapestry of quotations from his own earlier pieces. Strauss was 34 when he conducted Ein Heldenleben’s premiere in 1899, and riding high on success both as a conductor and composer. Those headings mentioned above are the titles of two of Ein Heldenleben’s six distinct sections, which run together in a single span of music, and chart an overall storyline of love, peril, triumph over adversity, and final transcendence.

Strauss leaps onto the stage with the swashbuckling horn and string theme that opens the first section, ‘The Hero’, though the heroic mood is shattered by the prattling woodwind and grumbling tubas of ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’, a rather vicious portrait of the critics who’d found fault in Strauss’s creations. He turns to his wife in ‘The Hero’s Companion’, before taking up arms against his detractors in the immense military canvas of ‘The Hero at Battle’. He returns victorious, but retreats to consider his contributions to the world in ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’, which quotes from Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote and Macbeth. Ein Heldenleben concludes gently in ‘The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion’, with Strauss and his wife Pauline represented in a horn and violin duet, rising above trivial earthly conflict in a glowing duet.

© David Kettle

Programme and performers

Richard Strauss Macbeth
Der Rosenkavalier
1. Vorspiel (Prelude)
2. Präsentation der Silbernen Rose (Presentation of the Silver Rose)
3. Walzer von Baron Ochs (Baron Ochs's Waltz)
4. Ist ein Traum (It’s a Dream)
5. Walzer (Waltz) 
Ein Heldenleben
1. Der Held (The Hero)
2. Des Helden Widersacher (The Hero's Adversaries)
3. Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero's Companion)
4. Des Helden Walstatt (The Hero at Battle)
5. Des Helden Friedenswerke (The Hero's Works of Peace)
6. Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung (The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion


Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Andris Nelsons

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