STRAUSS:  Works for Choir:  Der Abend, Op. 34 No. 1.  Hymne, Op. 34 No. 2.  Deutsche Motette, Op. 62.  An den Baum Daphne.  Die G–ttin im Putzzimmer.
Norddeutscher Figuralchor/J–rg Straube, cond.

THOROPHON CTH 2390 (F) (DDD) TT:  62:46

Strauss may have made his name in the genres of Lieder, tone poem, and opera, but he really wrote all kinds of music:  string quartet, instrumental sonatas, chamber works, ballets, symphonies, and concerti.  Many of these don't merit a second look or indeed count really as juvenalia or divertissements, rather than form the bedrock of his reputation.  His choral music, which you also don't hear a lot of, is a different story.  He wrote it practically throughout his career.  Some of it isn't very good, but some of it is as good as anything he ever composed.  

However, you don't hear a lot of even the good stuff for a couple of reasons.  First, it's incredibly difficult.  Essentially, Strauss's choral writing translates his orchestral writing from instruments to voices.  He makes absolutely no compromises of harmony, texture, or the difficult leaps in his melodic lines.  As to the latter, try humming the opening to Don Juan.  The vocal ranges for any but professional singers constitute unusual cruelty.  The choristers need the lungs and wind of a long-distance runner.  The shortest of the works on the program runs six minutes, the longest over eighteen, all of a cappella singing.  There's no orchestra to give singers a rest.  Second, the great choral works tend to require large forces.  The simplest work on this CD, An dem Baum Daphne (To the Tree, Daphne), runs to nine parts -- two double choirs of four parts each and a treble choir in unison.  The most elaborate, the Deutsche Motette,  subdivides into twenty real parts.  Most professional-caliber groups stand at about sixteen to thirty singers, and, again, you really do need real singers to carry this stuff off.  Since these works lie well beyond the abilities of community volunteers, they become very expensive indeed to produce.  I've never encountered even one live performance of any of them.

However, those who undertake the great challenge receive the great reward.  All the works presented here are gorgeous -- almost too gorgeous, treading dangerously close to beautiful kitsch, like some of the Italian landscapes of American Impressionist William Merritt Chase.  The poet Blake wrote that "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough."  One might apply this axiom to much of art.  There are more artists with good taste than with genius.  Genius can occasionally or even frequently go wrong, but mere good taste seldom goes really right.  If Strauss sometimes tries to jump the Grand Canyon without the necessary gas (I think of something like the triple coda in the Symphonia Domestica's finale), he also gives us the ravishing last scene of Rosenkavalier.  Both the disappointment and the incredible success stem from the same artistic impulse to push as far as one can.

The works in general sound like choral versions of the Siegfried-Idyl -- the choral writing is astonishing and unique.  I know of no other choral works like these, not even by Strauss's contemporaries and sharers of his idiom, like Georg Schumann and Max Reger, for example.  Each one is complex (though not complicated) and ornate, with the Deutsche Motette at the ne plus ultra. Listening to this program is like eating super-rich fudge:  you may need a break after each piece.  The sweets are sweeter, the pains are keener, the highs are higher.  Make no mistake, however, these pieces show Strauss at the top of his considerable game.  All of them belong to the German tradition of pantheistic Classicism inaugurated by Goethe and Schiller and continuing through H–lderlin, Rückert, and Hofmannsthal.  What struck me most was how the image of light -- usually sunrise or sunset -- seems to kindle Strauss's musical imagination.  In Der Abend (Evening, text by Schiller), Phoebus descends from his chariot into the arms of the sea-nymph Thetis, and (if you can believe it) Strauss manages to make you hear a golden light and a night richer than black velvet.  In Hymne (text by Rückert), a relatively subdued and somber music takes fire at a description of Spring.

Die G–ttin im Putzzimmer (The Goddess in Her Boudoir, text by Rückert) certainly counts as the oddest item on the program.  Strauss wrote it in the Thirties, just after Die schweigsame Frau, made no attempt to publish it, and indeed never heard it.  It's a little leaner, an equivalent to the chamber-like idiom of works like the second horn concerto he began to fashion in the final phase of his career.  It also strikes a vivacious, rather than rapt, attitude, at least in the beginning.  The poet speaks of the mess of a lady's dressing-table and how she miraculously pulls order from it.  He then subtly relates it to the Muse's creation of order from life's jumble.  Strauss matches him subtlety for subtlety:  the mood shifts, and you don't know how or where.  You simply find yourself in the midst of a quiet hymn to art.

To do these works even poorly, a choir must bring an immense amount of skill to the table.  The Norddeutscher Figuralchor and J–rg Straube were previously unknown to me.  Based on this CD alone, I find them one of the world's most potent choral combinations.  The intonation may not always be dead-on perfect, but it's good enough to contribute to the excitement of the performances.  You never doubt what the chord is or the tonic or the modulation.  The thick textures Strauss creates become preternaturally clear.  I quibble only with their diction, so mushy, so lacking in consonants that I could follow only with difficulty the texts in front of me.  To some extent, it's a matter of German choral style; to another, the simultaneous complexity of Strauss's counterpoint exacerbates the problem.  Again, this is a quibble.  Most important, the choir conveys no sense of strain, no struggle.  It's as if singing these works was the most natural thing in the world.  

Recorded sound is bright and clear.  The balances of the group are especially good.

S.G.S.(May 2001)