A Couple of Strausses
Photo by Robert Millard
Of the two composers named Strauss unrelated, so far as anyone knows who commanded the attention at downtown emporia in recent weeks, it was Richard who generated the louder noise and Johann Jr. who made the prettier music. Some of my colleagues seemed put out to discover something so trivial (their word, not mine) as one of Johanns waltzes in the sacred precincts of a Philharmonic subscription concert. Others had the wisdom to apply adjectives like silly to the four-hour endurance challenge of Richards Die Frau ohne Schatten at Mrs. Chandlers newly anointed opera house. Im only happy that Mrs. Chandler wasnt around for this ordeal happy, and perhaps a little envious.
Guest conductor Franz Welser-Möst, Austrian by birth (not quite Vienna, but Linz of the Linzer Torte which is close enough), drew on a fine old Viennese tradition, honored by the likes of Furtwängler and Walter, by ending his Philharmonic program with Johann Jr. in three-four: Künstler-Leben, to be specific, with all the intros and repeats to bring the work out to respectable length. You could, if you wished, stir in your seat and grumble at the sacrilege of introducing such fluff into precincts where Beethoven has so recently reigned. You could also, if you preferred, tune in on this quite superb performance, drink in the elegance of the unique orchestration first violins doubled by piccolo in the first theme, for one delight of many and marvel at how this splendid young conductor managed to put across the peculiarity of the Viennese rubato, with that subtle holding-back on the second beat, in only a couple of days rehearsal.
I have not always been that taken with Welser-Mösts conducting, and I found some of last weeks Philharmonic program above all, the Schubert Unfinished and the collaboration with Radu Lupu on Mozarts A-major Piano Concerto (K. 488) a shade lacking in grace. His programming at his new post with the Cleveland Orchestra has been full of adventure and new music; I wonder why he came here with so old-fashioned a bill. Lupus performance of the Mozart, with its divinely melancholic slow movement, seemed offhand, as much audibly slouching as he actually appeared onstage. Alban Bergs Three Pieces for Orchestra of 1913-14 instilled a little more life: great, thudding echoes of a young mans agonies as a world closes down around him (and, thus, an interesting mirror of the awful Richard Strauss biz from the same years going on just up the street).
Yet the waltz of Artists Life was the evenings real event. It sent me scurrying back to my own collection most of all to my videos of two New Years concerts at Viennas Musikverein conducted by Carlos Kleiber, and to an even older CD by his father, Erich. These performances are more than musical experiences; they are lessons in a subtle and (I would have thought) untranslatable language, beyond explanation by any system of supertitles yet invented. Yet the young Welser-Möst had our Philharmonic speaking it no, singing it remarkably well.
Richard Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten bears some kind of contemporary relevance, I suppose; it accomplishes the feat of delivering messages of comfort and joy both to readers of Betty Friedan and to bombers of abortion clinics. It delivers the same message married life is better with babies in four hours that Mozarts Papageno and Papagena deliver in four minutes. Hugo von Hofmannsthals overwrought outrage of a fairy tale accorded with literary tastes circa 1912; Richard Strauss, post-Elektra/Salome, easily commanded its musical equivalent. Today it serves the needs of painters with full pots of garish colors at their disposal, and designers with vast arrays of stage machinery to play with. Its most famous American production was as the showoff piece for the scenery-changing gadgetry at the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. Its one positive attribute at that time was the heavy cutting imposed on the score by its conductor, Karl Böhm, which the Los Angeles Opera preserved in the John Cox production first seen here in 1993 and now, restaged by Patrick Young, in its return. It runs through March 13.
By some distance, the current revival is the best production of the work Ive seen or could imagine seeing, better by far than the Metropolitan Operas tinfoil spectacular (now replaced) or the austere video version from Salzburg (conducted by Georg Solti at such breakneck tempos that, uncut, it runs almost the same time as the cut version seen here). In 1993, Randall Behr was the hapless conductor of a cast of comparable mediocrity, so that my memories of the David Hockney stage designs survived mostly in black and white. Now, finally, I have them in full color great globs of color, a huge 3-D impasto of exquisite bad taste exactly in tune with the music thanks to the musical outlines of the performance itself. Kent Naganos surging, billowing orchestra lays siege to the senses with what may be the worlds first audible legal narcotic.
The cast one and all proves as worthily chosen as the 1993 aggregation was unworthy. Inga Nielsen is the Empress, smaller and brighter of voice than the usual Wagnerian soprano (Leonie Rysanek in the Böhm recording), and by that measure more sympathetic; Linda Watson as the shrewish Dyers Wife is, by the same token, further down the scale of humanness and thus more overpowering. Best of all is Wolfgang Brendel as Barak the Dyer, a truly memorable portrait. Never have I been tempted to urge upon my reading public so horrendous a musical baggage purely on the strength of performance values . . . well, hardly ever.