STRAUSS:  Parergon "Sinfonia Domestica for Piano and Orchestra." Panathenăenzug  (Symphonic Etude in form of a passacaglia for piano and Orchestra).
Anna Gourari, pianist/Bamberg Symphony Orch/Karl Anton Rickenbacher, cond.

KOCH SCHWANN 3-6571 (F) (DDD)  TT:  53:03
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In 1924 Strauss completed and conducted the premiere of Schlagobers, which is Viennese variety of whipped cream—a ballet of his own devising with more than a nod to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. But it curdled, unsalvagably. And so Strauss went back to opera—Intermezzo—using his own anecdotal libretto. If not exactly a failure, its success was confined mainly to German-language theaters, the smaller the better, and occasional festivals such as Glyndebourne. He didn't return to opera until 1927—a reunion with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist of Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten. The result was arguably Strauss' worst opera, The Egyptian Helen, a farrago of quasi-myth and kitsch-sorcery, wherein Troy has fallen and Menelaus has reclaimed his faithless wife Helen.

In between Intermezzo and Helen, Strauss wrote what his musical biographer Norman Del Mar lumped together as "Orchestral Miscellenea." Among these are two works for piano left-hand and large orchestra that Strauss composed for Paul Wittgenstein, a longtime friend who lost his right arm on the Eastern front in World War One. From the spate of concerti that Wittgenstein commissioned far and wide—from Sergey Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Franz Schmidt, and Benjamin Britten among others—only one has survived in the standard repertory: Ravel's in D. Prokofiev's Fourth Concerto is not without interest in the spiky style he practiced after 1915 until his permanent return to the Soviet Union, but was rejected by Wittgenstein out of hand (sorry, the pun was not intentional), who never performed it.

Strauss seems to have to written both works gratis (das ist Wunderbar!), although neither one enjoyed critical or public favor, perhaps because they, too, were Schlagober. Workmanship is impeccable and there are intervals of authentic beauty but, Strauss being Strauss, both works are too long, repeatedly overelaborated, and thematically diffuse. Despite the reversal of opus numbers, Parergon [a companion piece, or offshoot, according to Del Mar] zur Symphonia Domestica came first, but had to be written cautiously, because Bote und Bock owned the copyright to Symphonia Domestica, and Strauss was in litigation with the firm. For reasons detailed in Koch International's program note (the English version begins on page 8), Strauss' principal borrowing from the 22-year-old Symphony was son Bubi's theme, ever so subtly altered, although allusions to others abound without actual plagiarism. Del Mar points out "a persistent C-sharp [that] returns incessantly throughout [like] the threatening rhythm in Tod und Verkl”rung." Bubi at the time was stricken with typhus, but recovered so that Parergon was free to end in happily familial F major.

The companion work, Op. 73, with an even more tongue-twisting title, Panathen”enzug (or Panathenaeum Procession), has a further subtitle, "Symphonic Etudes in the Form of a Passacaglia," linked somehow to Schumann's Etudes symphoniques. Several minutes longer than Parergon, this appears to be the first recording since Peter R–sel's with Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden Staatskapelle on EMI (whereas Gary Graffman, "C. Hobson,"and Hilde Somer recorded the Parergon along with R–sel). Del Mar suggests that the work's style drives from Liszt's B minor Sonata. There are 51 variations of a passacaglia theme in sonata-form.

Both works require the pianist play virtually without pause, and Anna Gourari survives brilliantly. Post-production can add all kinds of jiggery-pokery, but cannot manufacture a keyboard tone of Miss Gourari's substance or tonal beauty on a digital console. And she's a film actress to boot—made her debut in Werner Herzog's Invincible! Previous exposure to conductor Karl Anton Rickenbacker has not been endearing, but his leadership here of the mettlesome Bamberg Orchestra validates Otto Klemperer's verdict some 30 years ago: "one of the most able conductors of the new generation."

Recorded sound—a co-production with the Bavarian Radio Network, in the Concert Hall at Bamberg during August and October of 1999—is both tonally realistic and outstandingly well balanced. Don't let this one get by you if the repertoire is agreeable, although total timing leaves room for another 25 minutes of music. But is there another 25 minutes of "The Unknown Strauss" still to be recorded? This is, after all, Volume 11.

R.D. (Jan. 2001)