Richard Strauss, to me, is one of those protean composers who developed in the artistic ferment of Europe that stretched from the 1890s to the years encompassing World War I. He was, at least as much as any of his contemporaries, adventurous — he is, after all, responsible for both Salome and Elektra, two of the more outrageous operas of the time, both in theme and execution — and yet he also maintained a strong romantic streak, evidenced not only in works such as Der Rosenkavalier but even more in his “tone poems,” those programmatic works that continued a tradition in European music that goes all the way back to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and found exemplars in figures of the stature of Beethoven, Berlioz, Sibelius and Moussorgsky.
If music can be considered to be the “purest” art form — which is simply to say, the most abstract — then program works can be said to dirty it up a little. Ned Rorem’s dictum that music has no intrinsic meaning notwithstanding, composers seem unable to resist the idea of a musical composition with a narrative focus. This may be fairly vague, as in The Four Seasons or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or it may be quite specific, as in Strauss’ Don Quixote, which is nothing less than a musical rendition of Cervantes’ great novel. This one is a rarity in Strauss’ oeuvre, not in its programmatic content, but as one of a handful of works that feature a solo instrument, although it was not intended to be a “concerto” of any sort. Formally, it is a “theme and variations” work with an introduction and a finale. The theme, of course, is Don Quixote, carried by the cello, and the variations illustrate his various misadventures. The images are remarkably vivid, thanks in no small measure to Strauss’ gift for orchestration, which provides a clear but subtle definition. The orchestral color in Don Quixote is rich and typically Strauss, with those modernist astringencies that just save it from over-the-top romanticism. It’s a beguiling piece of music.
“Richard Strauss” and “chamber music,” I have to confess, are not concepts that have joined together easily in my mind. In my defense, Strauss is best known for his operas and full-blown orchestral works, probably the most popular of which, thanks to Stanley Kubrick, is Also Sprach Zarathustra. Those sorts of things tend to be big, so I was intrigued by the chance to listen to something small-scale.
The beginning of the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 6 is somewhat of a surprise, the opening chords recalling nothing so much as a small-town civic ceremonial. However, it soon drops the low-budget pomp and becomes a somewhat melancholy and sinuous interplay between the two instruments, sparked by intricate arpeggios. The andante ma non troppo which follows echoes the melancholy, providing a peaceful interlude until the lively but low-key beginning of the finale, which seesaws between “lively” and “peaceful” throughout.
This Sony reissue is obviously meant to showcase Yo-Yo Ma, one of the premier cellists of the twentieth century and still a force to be reckoned with. Seiji Ozawa, who led the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a record-breaking 29 years, is noted for his sympathetic understanding of the twentieth century repertoire, and offhand I can’t think of many orchestras better suited to Strauss than Boston. Emanuel Ax, the other half of the sonata, should need no introduction here. He has performed with Ma frequently, and they make an unbeatable combination.
Another facet of Strauss’ writing for chamber ensemble is presented by violinist Kjolbørn Holthoe and pianist Tor Espen Aspaas in a marvelous performance of the composer’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E-flat, Op. 18. It’s rather astonishing that Strauss could pack the heroic quality of his major orchestral works into a piece for two musicians, but it’s there. For devotees of chamber music, this is an easy one to love, with all the requisite Straussian romance and irony, and a bigness to it that’s hard to describe. The intensity of the first movement carries through very quietly into the middle movement and on into the finale, which opens with a somewhat brooding andante that resolves itself in a brilliantly colored allegro.
Romanian composer George Enescu is another example of those gifted composers who were also virtuosos in high demand; consequently, his output as a composer was limited. It didn’t help that he was an obsessive perfectionist, constantly revising his compositions. He also went through numerous stylistic changes, constantly testing and incorporating new ideas and methods into his works. The Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor, Op. 25 is a mid-career work, completed (or at least published) in 1926. Two things are apparent in this sonata: Enescu’s constant pushing at the boundaries of established forms and his incorporation of folk music into his work, a characteristic he shared with so many composers of the time. After early works that were little more than “settings” of Romanian folk tunes, Enescu gradually began incorporating the structures and motifs into his work, finally developing a true synthesis of the concepts of folk music and the demands of symphonic writing, much as Bartók had done with Hungarian folk sources. Enescu, by his own account, was reaching for a sense of immediacy, a recollection, perhaps, of childhood, which is brought home in the intimacy of his chamber music. The
I am continually, and very happily, amazed at the truly gifted performers brought to the larger world by 2L Records. Holthe and Aspaas bring a great measure of enthusiasm, energy, and sympathy to these two sonatas, performing with an intensity that is rare and all the more valuable because of that. In a very quiet way, this is an exceptional release.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2005)