R. Strauss, Homebreaker

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

My wife and I have been happily married for 30 years, which proves that we are quite compatible. In fact we disagree on only two subjects. (1) She is a vegetarian, while I can't do without an occasionally cooked corpse. (2) I love the music of Richard Strauss, while she would rather eat a cooked corpse than listen to three minutes of Ein Heldenleben.

Yet even Annick loves Strauss' Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op. 5, probably because it is such an early work of the composer that it sounds as though it were written by someone else. But by whom? I can't quite figure that out. Perhaps Schumann comes closest, but then parts of it sound more like Mendelssohn, other sections more like Grieg or Brahms. One thing's for sure. This piece is by a thoroughly professional romantic composer who really knows how to write one beautiful tune after another and how to make it all come together perfectly on the piano. I think this work is so superb from beginning to end that it should be a "war horse" of the piano repertoire rather than the unjustly neglected piece it is.

When I discovered the Glenn Gould recording of this sonata several years ago (CBS Masterworks MK 38659), I considered it my "compact discovery of the year." And I like it more with each hearing. Gould's flawless performance certainly helps, as does the digitally-recorded sound.

The work is coupled with Strauss' even earlier Five Piano Pieces (Klavierstücken), Op. 3, which are also beautiful, melodious and ideal Strauss for people who hate Strauss.

A quick check of the Fall 1993 Schwann Opus guide to classical recordings reveals that this 1984 CD is still available, as is a 1982 analog recording of the same sonata by Gould, coupled with Enoch Arden, Piano Pieces and Songs (Sony Classical Glenn Gould Edition, 2-CDs, SM2K 52657). The Gould interpretation is also available on a 3-CD set, which includes Brahms, Grieg, Sibelius and Wagner (CBS M3K-42107). If you would like the Sonata, Op. 5 without Gould's occasional humming accompaniment, there is a more recent (1990), digitally-recorded CD available (Adda 581187) with pianist Y. Boukoff. It is coupled with Strauss' cello and violin sonatas.

In fairness to Annick, there are two other pieces by Richard Strauss which she really enjoys: the thoroughly uplifting waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier (how could anyone not like those!) and his Four Last Songs.

But there is a great deal more Strauss to be enjoyed by people who do not have my wife's aversion to loud brass and Teutonic grandstanding. There's the tuneful humor of Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, the brooding seriousness of Death and Transfiguration and the soaring melodies of Don Juan, for example. You can find these superb tone poems together in digitally-recorded performances by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra (CBS MDK-44909) or, for bargain-hunters, Z. Kosler and the Slovak Philharmonic (Naxos 8.550250).

I am also partial to the Burleske in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra which, when I first discovered it many years ago, was just as neglected as the Piano Sonata, Op. 5. Now there are some 14 CDs to choose from. I have the digitally-remastered analog recording with Byron Janis at the piano and Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony (RCA 5734-2-RC). But the poor sound makes me wish I had the Rosenberger recording with Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony (Delos DE 3109). And that CD is coupled with the Rosenkavalier waltzes, so Annick might not object to it ending up under the Christmas tree this month.

Then there's good, old Ein Heldenleben which, I'm the first to admit, has only one great tune in 45 minutes. Ah, but what a tune it is! Once used as the theme music for The Big Story TV series, this is one of the most exciting melodies ever created. I greatly prefer it to another Richard Strauss theme, Also sprach Zarathustra, which made it out of obscurity when it was used in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have an out-of-print digital recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (London 414 292-2). But I have to play it only when my wife isn't home, if I expect our marriage to last another 30 years.

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