Rudolf Kempe/Peter Rosel, piano. Dresden State Orchestra (1976)
This work looks better on paper than it sounds in any actual performance. Strauss wrote it as a Lisztian one-movement concerto (the second of two) for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, the artist also responsible for commissioning Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. Strauss lays out the piece in four large sections, corresponding to a symphonic allegro, scherzo, slow movement, and march-finale, yet it is also a set of about 55 passacaglia variations on a freely-treated ground.
Despite some successful moments (particularly in the slow movement), the piece has not suffered undeserved neglect. Its faults are many. The counterpoint quickly takes on an incredible density. At first, it astonishes you, but Strauss never lets up. In the end, it simply wearies you. Although the pianist plays almost constantly (it's an incredible workout for the left hand), the extremely thick and busy scoring keeps the soloist from taking center stage, and often the soloist provides mere subsidiary figuration. If we juxtapose this work with Ravel's concerto for Wittgenstein, we find that Ravel does almost exactly the opposite: he deploys his orchestra sparingly, usually to provide secondary color for the soloist. Second, Strauss' variations don't really go anywhere. The large structures are determined more by similarity of character than the shape and juxtaposition of the variations. In many ways, the work reminds you of some of the slighter aries variees of the 18th century. The architecture lacks the impetus of, say, Brahms' Haydn Variations (to take a supreme example) or Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Rosel can't cut through the orchestra. He sounds outmatched, and, in truth, he is. Kempe tries to keep things light, but he can't do enough. The work sounds busy and distant, like crickets through a window. The slow movement is lovely, if slight, but its interest lies mainly in the unusual concord of piano, harp, lyra (a glockenspiel relative), and celeste.
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