'Reducing the string size of Strauss's Metamorphosen from 23 to the seven of the composer's short score … might seem to be going light on the tragic force of this great wartime elegy. Not so in the hands of The Nash Ensemble. If anything Strauss's most private moments of grief have even more eloquence … the recap almost breaks the heart in its restored purity of expression [Prelude to Capriccio] … truthful recording does full justice to the warmth, poise and integration of these marvellous performances' (BBC Music Magazine)
'The music's autumnal soulfulness suits the Nash Ensemble's house style to near-perfection … the same classy artistry shines through their performances of the string sextet prelude to Strauss's last opera Capriccio, and of the much earlier Piano Quartet— Brahms and Schumann-influenced and very attractive' (Classic FM Magazine)
'This captivating disc from the Nash Ensemble features music from both ends of Richard Strauss's long and productive life. The Piano Quartet in C minor … is a remarkable piece … The Nash players certainly give it their all and make one wonder why it's not better known. More familiar is Strauss's great late lament Metamorphosen, but it is played here in a realisation of his original draft for seven strings rather than the 23 he eventually settled upon. With a performance as searing as this, it makes just as much of a mark as the better-established "orchestral" version—the textures sound just as full, yet the intertwining lines emerge with greater focus and the whole is underlined by the tonal solidity of Duncan McTier's double bass. An equally seductive account of the string sextet Prelude to Capriccio completes the programme' (The Daily Telegraph)
'[Piano Quartet] An enjoyable piece … expansively dramatic and genuinely expressive with that touch of spontaneity which signals Strauss at his best' (Gramophone)
'The Nash's performance, angry and grieving, is faultless [Metamorphosen] … The real treat here is the Piano Quartet, dating from 1885, when Strauss, then aged 21, still considered himself a Brahmsian … the best of it anticipates the chamber-oriented scoring of such later works as Ariadne auf Naxos and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The over-dominant piano part—Strauss wrote it as a showpiece for himself—is played with tremendous panache by Ian Brown' (The Guardian)
'I am lost in admiration at The Nash Ensemble's achievement here in capturing the music's noble intensity with an emotional flexibility and glowing textural fluidity denied even Karajan's sensational Berlin players at their most refulgent. Captured in immaculately balanced, velvety sound by producer Andrew Keener and engineer David Hinitt, this is a performance that gets right to the heart of this glorious score, tantalizingly retaining its chamber-scale purity even when Strauss is at his most super-heated. There are magic moments galore along the way, but to hear Marianne Thorsen and her fabulous team soar aloft with the pulsating phrases the briefly resolve at 16'48" is an unforgettable experience … there's also an exemplary booklet note by Strauss scholar Michael Kennedy. Highly recommended' (International Record Review)
'There's certainly every reason to hear this glorious and desperately sorrowful lament for a lost civilisation … in this version, especially when it's as beautifully played as by the Nash Ensemble members represented here' (Manchester Evening News)
'This is one of the most delicious disacs to come out of the Hyperion stable … [Metamorphosen] Each line shines anew here, each crushing harmony showing Strauss pishing at the barriers of tonality with effervescent gusto. This performance is breathtaking, with The Nash Ensemble understanding direction and phrasing, interlocking Strauss's ideas seamlessly' (HMV Choice)
'The Nash members are really under the skin of Strauss’s music and bring out desperation and beauty in equal measure … with recorded sound that puts the listener in the middle of the action without intimidation—how well the piano is balanced with the string trio – and scholarly notes from Michael Kennedy, this is a quite superb issue' (Classicalsource.net)
'Das Klavierquartett sed 21-jährigen Strauss ist ein dankbareres Stück für das Nash Ensemble, das ungeheuer viel Energie in dieses Stück einbringt, in dem der Komponist für sich selber einen besonders brillanten Klavierpart schrieb, den Ian Brown hoch virtuos spielt' (Pizzicato)
Finale: Vivace [10'19]
Act 1 No 1: Prelude [11'04]
This is The Nash Ensemble at its very best—full-blooded performances of red-meat chamber music.
Metamorphosen can in some ways be regarded as Richard Strauss’s heart-rending reaction against the wartime destruction of German culture and heritage. Completed in the spring of 1945, the work is at once angry, poignant and intensely beautiful. The version performed here is derived from Strauss’s original score for seven stringed instruments (he later expanded it to twenty-three), and incorporates the revisions to the closing bars made in subsequent versions.
The Piano Quartet is an early work, composed some sixty years before the valedictory Metamorphosen. In it, one contemporary critic noted, Strauss ‘shows himself a better Brahmsian than Brahms’. Strauss was clearly proud of this early composition—he performed in the premiere—and we should not dismiss it purely on the grounds of its coming from the pen of a twenty-one year old.
Capriccio also predates Metamorphosen, but only by four years. This last of Strauss’s ground-breaking operas opens with an extended movement for string sextet—this is no arrangement—as the composer character Flamand competes with his poet rival for the hand of the delectable Madeleine. The result is of such searingly intense emotion that Strauss successfully granted the 1942 premiere to a hated Nazi official in return for safe passage out of Germany for his son and part-Jewish wife.
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After completing some movements of the Second Wind Sonatina in the spring of 1944, Richard Strauss began to write a work for strings. Coincidentally, a few weeks later the conductor Karl Böhm brought him a request from the Swiss musician and patron Paul Sacher for a composition for strings for Sacher’s Collegium Musicum Zürich. Strauss wrote to Böhm on 30 September 1944 to say that he had been working for some time ‘on an Adagio for some eleven solo strings that will probably develop into an Allegro as I can’t remain very long at the Brucknerian snail’s pace’. He also expressed doubt whether the work would ever be finished. Worry about the safety of his son’s family in Vienna and depression over the war in general made composing difficult. Early in October he wrote to his grandson Richard in Vienna to say that he was copying out the score of Till Eulenspiegel, ‘a more intelligent occupation than fabricating more decrepit original works’. He also made arrangements of the Rosenkavalier waltzes and a new version of his waltz Munich. It was not until early in 1945 that he resumed work on the string piece. This had by now shrunk from eleven solo strings to seven (two violins, two violas, two cellos, one double bass) and had gained a title: Metamorphosen. This short-score version was completed on 31 March 1945, but already, on 13 March, Strauss had begun its expansion to twenty-three solo strings (ten violins, five violas, five cellos, three double basses). It was completed in this form on 12 April. A few weeks later he wrote in his diary: ‘On 1 May ended the most terrible period of mankind: twelve years during which the fruits of Germany’s 2000-year-long cultural development were condemned to extinction and irreplaceable buildings and works of art were destroyed by a criminal rabble of soldiers. A curse on technology!’ This was Strauss’s frame of mind as he wrote the closing pages of Metamorphosen. The idea that the work is an elegy for Hitler is so preposterous as to be not worthy of consideration.
Whether the septet short score was ever intended as a performing version is unknown and seems doubtful. It was discovered in Switzerland in 1990 and first performed in Garmisch in 1994 in an edition by Rudolf Leopold which made use of both the short score and the final version, thereby retaining the original closing modulation from the short score. The twenty-three-string version was first performed in Zürich on 25 January 1946. Strauss conducted during parts of two rehearsals and Sacher conducted the premiere, with the composer in the audience.
Why Metamorphosen? The term is not intended musically, for the themes are not metamorphosed nor subjected to variation but developed symphonically. During his despondency in the summer of 1944 Strauss had reread Goethe, who applied the word in his old age to his own spiritual development. It is even possible that the germ of Metamorphosen came from a projected setting of a Goethe poem which Strauss abandoned when he received Sacher’s commission. What is certain is that the works of 1943–5 are intentional memorials to all that Strauss cherished most in German culture. The two Wind Sonatinas evoke Mozart and Beethoven (with overt quotations from the latter in the Second Sonatina) while several themes in Metamorphosen sound like Wagner quotations although none is a direct citation. Another unused sketch of this period is headed ‘to the memory of Franz Schubert’.
Metamorphosen opens on lower strings with a tragically intensified version of the introduction to the First Wind Sonatina after which the violas play what it would not be inaccurate to describe, as Norman Del Mar did, as the work’s motto-theme. Its true significance remains undisclosed until the very end. To describe every twist and turn of the music would take longer than the work takes to play. The first sombre climax dissolves into a lighter episode introducing another new theme. This ends the exposition and begins a free-fantasia central section in which the principal material already heard is extended and embellished, the motto-theme recurring in combination with other fragmentary themes. In this septet version the interplay of solo instruments is especially clear; and the motto is never far away. At one point the music is marked appassionato and the textures become more complex as the tempo increases and the motto-theme is treated in savage canonic entries, with elaborate solo violin figuration providing a virtuoso element. A huge and urgent climax culminates in a sustained fortissimo high G which brings back the opening of the work and ends the fantasia section. Another dramatic pause begins the coda, with massive reiterations of the motto and a more lyrical treatment of it in duet by solo violin and solo viola. Here the music is like a great threnody. But why is that motto-theme so familiar? As the coda descends into gloom, we are given the answer as, in the bass, we hear the principal theme of the Marcia funebre from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. In the score at this point Strauss inscribes the words ‘In Memoriam’. He claimed that he had not at first realized the resemblance to his motto-theme—‘it escaped from my pen’. Intentional or not, the quotation makes the perfect ending to one of his very greatest works.
We can get some idea of the distance Strauss travelled in his career from the next work on this disc, the Piano Quartet, composed sixty years before Metamorphosen. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Quartet is by some other composer, one in thrall to Brahms, as indeed Strauss was in 1885. It is instructive to read a review of a performance of this work written in 1904, nine months before he died at the age of forty-three, by Arthur Johnstone of the Manchester Guardian, a critic of immense perspicacity and knowledge. In it, he thought, Strauss ‘shows himself a better Brahmsian than Brahms, avoiding all his model’s worst faults … The quartet … might rank as the mature work of anyone but Strauss’. It is a work on a big scale, lasting some forty minutes, structurally strong, the first movement in particular showing a dramatic grasp of symphonic tension. Echt-Strauss of course it is not, but it is impossible not to admire, even at times to love, its audacities. He completed it in Munich on New Year’s Day 1885, having worked on it the previous year during his visit to Berlin. The first performance was in Weimar on 8 December 1885 by members of the Halír Quartet with Strauss playing the piano part. The following month it was repeated at Meiningen, where Strauss was then court conductor. He dedicated it to his employer, the Grand Duke, ‘in gratitude’. The work won the prize given by the Berlin Tonkünstler Verein for a piano quartet (there were twenty-four entries).
Perhaps, however, one should recognize the real Strauss in the broad sweep of the second subject of the first movement and in the Till-like way in which he switches moods during this Allegro. In the skittish Scherzo, placed second, we can hear pre-echoes of thefor piano and orchestra, composed in 1886, another work for which Brahms was the inspiration but in which the Strauss we know makes several guest appearances. The delightful trio section returns in the coda. The melodies of the slow movement are profuse in their emotional richness. If they are sentimental, they do not outstay their welcome; and where will we hear that intriguing little triplet figure again? In Ariadne auf Naxos! The finale is more Schumann than Brahms, but here too the keen ear will detect foreshadowings of the mature Strauss in some of the subsidiary figures.
The string sextet which opens Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, composed in 1940–41, might almost have been a sketch for Metamorphosen. No other opera begins quite like this. What we hear is the work (it was originally to have been a quartet) which one of the characters, the composer Flamand, has written for the young widowed Countess Madeleine for whose love he is a rival with the poet Olivier. Its ingratiating opening phrases flow seamlessly together, setting the intimate mood of this ‘conversation piece’, as Strauss described this opera. This exposition comes to a full close and the sextet could have ended there. But after a pause a new fantasia-like section begins with dramatic tremolandi and exciting florid passages for solo violin and solo viola. This is where the music acquires the elegiac mood which takes it nearly into the orbit of Metamorphosen. The themes are spun out and woven together with supreme artistry. This section comes to resolution on a chord and the recapitulation follows in the tonic key.
Capriccio was first performed in Munich on 28 October 1942 but the sextet had its premiere several months earlier in Vienna at a private gathering in the house of the city’s Nazi Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach. This gesture was made by Strauss (who had known Schirach’s composer-father) in gratitude for the protection afforded by Schirach to Strauss’s son and part-Jewish wife, although they were in fact arrested on one occasion. It was Schirach’s ambition to restore Vienna as cultural centre of Europe and collaboration in this aim was a small price for Strauss to pay in return for the safety of his beloved family. Hence the somewhat strange launch of this exquisite piece of music.
Michael Kennedy © 2007