Rudolf Kempe/Manfred Weise, clarinet. Wolfgang Liebscher, bassoon. Dresden State Orchestra (1975)
Lovely, enigmatic late Strauss – a cross between the intimacy of chamber music and something larger. Written for clarinet, bassoon, harp, and strings, it plays off a string sextet against the larger body.
At times it's as intimate as Mozart and as mellow as Brahms. Yet, it seems to pose interpretive difficulties. The notes can be there, but not always the musical coherence – understandable, since during its short span Strauss keeps a continual variation of his main ideas on the boil. Kempe comes up with some ravishing sounds, but he doesn't always delineate the structural progress of the piece. At times, the argument flattens out because too much is played at the same level of emphasis. The soloists try for delicacy, and I must admit the lightness of the playing. But this comes at a cost. There are odd little breaks in the clarinettist's line, as if there weren't enough breath to sustain the phrase. Occasionally, the bassoon rasps, for reasons I can't fathom. Strauss may have begun the piece by intending the bassoon to portray a prince enchanted as a bear, but the program never got all that specific.
Furthermore, the bassoon part, by Strauss' own admission, owes much to Mozart – not only Mozart's bassoon, but also his oboe writing. A good job from Kempe, but mostly routine.
Esa-Pekka Salonen/Paul Meyer, clarinet. Knut Sonstevold, bassoon. New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra (1987)
An eccentric reading, mainly in the first movement, finds its bearings and settles into a good account. For some reason, Salonen at times forces squawks from the clarinet and tries to give each forte passage a shot of stimulant. If he had carried on this way in Mozart or Brahms, he would feel ashamed of himself. This not only distorts the shape of Strauss' phrases but also tends to halt the forward pulse. At best, the performance is okay, and you can do better.
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Dimitri Ashkenazy, clarinet. Kim Walker, bassoon. Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin (1991)
Another tentative account, with good soloists. The soloists often hold back and so appear a bit faceless. Vladimir Ashkenazy finally gets the sound of late Strauss, although through the back door. He stresses nothing in the texture and achieves clarity by tip-toeing through the work. The ensemble is a bit ragged. Other than the string sextet's opening of magical harmonic sideslips – make no mistake, Strauss, not Ashkenazy, is the conjurer – this reading impresses more by the traps it avoids rather than the approach it takes and overall offers little to dislike but nothing to love.
Amati/Sonomaster SRR 9205/1
Wojciech Rajski/Martin Spangenberg, clarinet. Karsten Nagel, bassoon. Polish Chamber Philharmonic (1993)
This performance comes with an extra track, in which oboist Simon Dent reads a program over musical excerpts, for those who need a program, but don't hold that against anybody. The performance itself is easily one of the best. The tone may not measure up to more famous groups, but the alertness of the ensemble surpasses others. The soloists play like real soloists rather than like orchestral back-benchers and give their parts distinct shape. It's more than a question of knowing when to take the spotlight and when to give way, although their sense of that never fails them. They also provide several colors for their parts, rather than the same color, merely louder or softer. Both put out what seems an unending line when called upon (the clarinet at the opening of the first movement, the bassoon in the second) and yet also dance. Most impressively, everyone gets the bit between his teeth and plays, in many senses of the word. Several members of the ensemble step out briefly and return to the group. Nobody backs up gingerly into the piece, like Ashkenazy and the Berlin RSO. They achieve a positive delicacy and poetry, rather than delicacy through a tentative engagement of the piece. The last movement arrives at more than high spirits; it's rapt joy. There's a rare unanimity of vision and execution among all.
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