Denon 81757 2050-2
Hiroshi Wakasugi/Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (1987)
Rudolf Kempe/Dresden State Orchestra (1974)
For Diaghilev's Ballets russes, the authors (Hofmannstahl and one Count Harry Kessler) devised a Biblical libretto meant as spiritually edifying and unfortunately came up with a joyless piece of fin-de-siecle kitsch, with its roots as much in Swinburne's Atalanta and Wilde's Salome as in Genesis. Understandably, Strauss' imagination failed to light, despite some fanciful touches in the score. As a ballet, the work fails. The bulk of the music, in Strauss' "tone poem" style, suits mime more than dance. Most of the plot points are made by scenery, costume, and mime. Many of the obvious dance numbers seem tacked on and, oddly, make very little musical impact. Bernard Shaw and Ernest Newman tangled over its merits in a public exchange of letters (one of the few public skirmishes in which Shaw came up short). Significantly, Shaw, on the side of Strauss, did not defend the work on musical grounds but reasoned that the greatest composer of his day could not possibly turn out inferior work – a variation of the "Am I not Sophocles" defense. Considered only by its length, this is a major work. Compared to Frau ohne Schatten, his next big project, it's a runt.
How much of this score do you want? Wakasugi gives you the entire thing. Kempe gives you a "symphonic fragment," which, at the request of his publishers, Strauss pulled out of the original score in 1946. More musically cogent than the ballet, it almost completely jettisons the story but fails to rescue the product completely. Kempe gives the music a decent chance, although the performance doesn't convince you that we have neglected a masterpiece. Wakasugi's orchestra sounds pretty thin (a triply-divided violin section, a la Elektra doesn't help) and hesitant, although they make a good thing of the delicate music for Joseph's guardian angel. The complete score seems to me for scholars, fans, and the extremely curious.
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