Saturday, December 31, 2005

Richard Strauss, Sir John Barbirolli, "Metamorphisis"

On my way to make coffee I stopped to find some music to listen to while drinking my usual morning cup of coffee. Not sure of what I wanted to hear, i flipped through some stray CD's I hadn't listened to in a long while. This one popped out. Sir John Barbirolli conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra on a double CD from EMI. Two works, the Richard Strauss Metemorphosis for 23 solo Strings and Gustav Mahler's sixth Symphony.

That's a bit rich for a morning coffee, but I put it on anyway. I was instantly reminded of why I like Sir John's conducting so much. He always gets to the heart and soul of the music and he never failed to inspire the lave and devotion of the musicians that played under him. One engagement with the Berlin Philharmonic resulted int he Orchestra's requesting him to conduct them in a recording of Mahler's momumental Ninth Symphony. That was quite an honour for and English Conductor to be asked to conduct one of Germany's premiere Orchestras.

Listening to this interpretation only confirmed what I thought. He finds the very soul of this music. This is probably the most intensely bitter sweet music ever written. Strauss wrote it as a memorial after the bombings of the Munich Opera House and the vicious bombing of Dresden in which the Royal Air force deliberately dropped incendiary devices intended to create a hollocost (a fire storm). Most of the old city of Dresden (said to be one of the most beautiful in Europe) was destroyed, priceless documents and art treasures incinerated. Dresden was a civilian target, and the city was unarmed.

It seems that there are no civilians in war, despite the spin put on it by press reports. Even stranger how none of the liner notes on the recordings of this music note the precise circumstances under which it was written. There seems to be a certain hesitation to talk about this holocaust.

What do you say when you see the Opera houses you worked in and where your Operas were performed reduced to ashes? The Metamorphosis is Strauss response. Some call it a dirge, but while the mood is certainly sombre, it, in reality a comemoration, celebration and good-bye to places that had made up the major portion of his life. I hear sorrow and sadness but not hopelessness. Strauss went on to create several more major operatic productions (Cappricio is my favourite), an oboe concerto for an American oboe player stationed near him, and of course his reall good-by, the Four Last Songs.

(a side note here; the biography I linked to does what so many articles about composers writing at the end of an era do; that is make some sort of comment about them being anachronistic or out of date. Most of the great composers were anachronisms. Bach certainly was not writing in the style of his time, he wrote in a style of an earlier period but still, his work sums up the byggone period. A final explosion of creativity, yes; anachrnism no. Struass was no anachronism, the popularity of his works proove that they speak to us even today.)

In the Metamorphosis you hear all the skills a acquired over a lifetime of composition. Manipulating 3 or 4 voices is difficult for most people but 23 voices.... well nigh impossible. Strauss weaves the seamless development of a few themes for more than 27 minutes. It is one of the great compositional tour de force ever written, and the music certainly attains the greatness and stature Strauss to which Strauss aspired.

This isn't background music, nor is it a trivial and sentimental journey into the past. Its subject was most certainly current then and remains so today. Despite commentator's loathing to talk about the exact reasons for its composition and why Strauss diverted it from its original purpose; a retrospective look at his life to be published after his death.

Certainly half a century after its composition, it has stood the test of time and takes its place amongst the great achievements of he twentieth century. The true extent the bitterness of the tragic bombing of Dresden is heard in the final few bars where Strauss quotes the funeral march from Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica). The harmonies turn sarcastic and sour in the final few notes of the quote.

The New Philharmonia Orchestra plays its usual best under Barbirolli. The sad news is that this recording is no longer available. I looked for my other favourite performance, Vienna Philharmonic Strings under Andre Previn on Phillips, but that one is no longer available. The Simon Rattle on EMI, I am loathe to recommend because I have yet to hear a recording of his that captures my attention. Likely the Herbert von Karajan recording is available but it is so sickly and saccharine sweet, it sugar coats the pain and sounds ingenuous. Hunt through the classical music sections of used CD stores. Usualy they do not put a high value on this music and I have gotten rare deals at unbelievablly low prices. Here's that EMI number for you anyway:
CMZ 0777 7 67816 2

Don't you wish the music labels had a service where you could special order a one of recording produced from their archives? You know this is possible. It just has never been done.

On a somewhat lighter note, here's how Strauss explains the Origin of Music using Also Sprach Zarathustra. While it may seem somewhat amusing, Strauss correctly illustrates the harmonic series which is present in each note we hear even though we don't percieve it as such. Now this is an interesing way to learn about the phsysics of sound! No one taught it to me like that in any phsysics class I was in.


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