Hiroshi Wakasugi/Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (1988)
Strauss had little success with ballet. He wrote two large ones (Josephslegende and this), neither of which have kept the stage. There also exists an extensive sketch for a ballet called Die Insel Kythere (based on Watteau's Embarquement pour Cythere, which also inspired Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse"), which I believe, if carried out, would have hit with the public. Despite an impossibly elaborate scenario and unreasonable production demands (including a cast of several hundreds), it contains Strauss' best dance music. However, many of its movements found their way into other scores, like Burger als Edelmann.
Josephslegende isn't really balletic or even particularly dance-like; Strauss merely tries to put his tone-poem manner to wider service and fails. Worse yet, the music fails to engage a listener. Strauss' inspirational flame seems almost about to gutter. Schlagobers, on the other hand, takes as its model the Tchaikovsky ballet (particularly Nutcracker). Its initial failure probably stems from its opulence at a time of economic austerity, following World War I (the papers sneered at it as "the millionaires' ballet"), but the libretto, a lame excuse for a succession of pretty dances, makes even less sense than the Nutcracker. Musically, it succeeds beyond anything in Josephslegende, but it still has problems. We find weak sections mixed in with many full of grace and wit. Of course, a suite could overcome these problems. Strauss himself arranged a suite, but he was not the best judge of his own material here; he keeps stale movements and jettisons the sure-fire. He's at his best in the "national" dances, including Austrian Landler, waltzes, polkas, and round dances and Brazilian maxixe.
For many years, we heard only selected movements, culled from Strauss' suite. For example, Kempe's set (EMI CMS764346 2) includes the "Schlagobers-Walzer," rather anaemic compared to those in Rosenkavalier. Wakasugi gives us a chance to hear the entire work and to discover its virtues. It's a charming work that goes on too long. Again, a suite could overcome this objection. If only Wakasugi and the Tokyo played better. The ensemble is almost at amateur level, the intonation shaky, the tone very thin, and not even the fine recorded sound can make you forget the performers' defects. Wakasugi, although he has recorded a Strauss series, has very little feel for Strauss' idiom. He reminds me of Helen Traubel singing "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues." No Schwung. Still, the recording may encourage others to take up at least some of the score.
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