Several listeners, on suddenly discovering in a program insert that soprano Lise Davidsen had cancelled her appearance in Richard Strauss’s beloved Four Last Songs, did some grimacing double takes. Rather than banishing the shadow cast by the cancellation, the substitution of a Symphonic Fantasy on die Frau ohne Schatten looked to be substituting a shadowy Doppelgänger instead on Thursday night at Symphony Hall.
But who can complain when a great orchestra and inspiring leader fearlessly surf a constantly cresting, evening-length, Straussian wave? Not even this writer, who has expressed hostility to the composer’s propensity to elevate banal domesticity into heroic poem tomes. Do we care if Strauss can musically illustrate brushing his teeth or taking a bath? In general we prefer to hear absolute concert music that takes us out of time and place entirely…and eschews facile programmatic pranks.
Of course, no one can gainsay the joy we get from the lighter and more joyful pranks of one infamous gadfly. Strauss’s longform title, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks after the old rogue’s tale, set in rondeau for large orchestra, Op. 28, actually describes a work that has the merits of brevity and concentrated good humor. Its 15 minutes pass with smiles and joys, until of course the death knell sounds and Till’s neck snaps. Who needs a music appreciation lecture to get this picture? The large orchestra made lots of good noises in the roundelay of themes, especially that noble if parodic take on the Academic Festival Overture. Of course, the horn and clarinet put across their liquid mockery, and strings shimmered in Straussian tremolos up high, but do the triangle (always magical in Strauss) and ratchet also need callouts? Considering himself ill used by the Bavarian musical worthies, he thumbed his elegantly ironic nose herein with narcissistic, gleaming self-referential polish. Strauss had essayed death and transfiguration, in deeper works, but never so enjoyably as here. Nelsons saw to it that no detail went unpunished even as he encouraged every sectional and individual solo to bloom. Would Till himself have sat through any other Strauss? He was not known for Sitzfleisch.
And what about BSO audiences? Are we useful co-conspirators along with Nelsons, the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus in DG’s forthcoming seven-CD Strauss set or the tone poems? Apparently yes, because by Thursday night, the playing had certainly achieved studio standards.
After the brightness of Till’s adventures, Strauss’s late-in-life, 20-minute Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau Ohne Schatten, (The Woman Without a Shadow) certainly cast one. Hardly a typical opera potpourri replete with arias and set pieces, it rather functioned as a useful salvage for a mostly written-out composer and his hungry publisher. Since the themes of the opera were (and are) unfamiliar to most, it did not then (and does not now) feel stale, despite its status as rather generic Strauss. Shimmering strings, chirpy winds and big climaxes provided sound and fury signifying froth, but what luscious, oceanic froth. After the opening bass blast, (no organ cue, unfortunately) an upwelling saccharine loveliness ensues, as harps and percussion, winds and strings vie for pleasurable sensations in noodling of the highest orders. Lots of notes in love with themselves appear on this stunning canvas, which journeys from one unearned pathos to the next, until the gloriously bittersweet pianissimo fadeout. One could not imagine (nor should one try) a better-conceived and more artfully executed traversal. Again, it’s ready for the can.
The luxurious scoring of Symphonia Domestica stands as something of a coda for the tone poem, coming as it did at the end of Strauss’s output of 9 in 17 years, thought he did return of the form 13 years later with his Alpine Symphony. Another overlong (at 45 minutes) example of Strauss’s self-hero worship, it began life in 1902 as a “Family Scherzo with double fugue on Three Themes.”
The beginning of the composer’s poetic description made it into Wikiquote:
My wife, my child, my music
Nature and sun, they are my joy
A little calm and much humor
There even the devil can teach me nothing!
Annotator Bryan Gilliam conveniently laid out the themes for us:
F major 1st theme: Papa returns from trip, tired
B major 2nd theme: Mama
D major 3rd theme: Bubi, a mixture, however a greater similarity to Papa
The three take a walk outdoors. Evening time, cozy family table
Mama brings Bubi to bed. Papa works. Papa and Mama seul: scène d’amour
Morning: Bubi cries, joyful awakening
And then a little quarreling and arguing (Mama begins, but father ends it)
Reconciliation and cheerful ending
Interesting, but hardly necessary to be thinking about while opening this agreeable upper-middle-class, decidedly pre-war domestic gift package.
So, at the beginning, let us imagine the tired oboe impersonating Papa returning home (Strauss’s own father played the horn) to the embrace of the family of clarinets and strings …but then we gave up on following the bouncing ball of bedroom and drawing room images, especially since Strauss himself withdrew the descriptions during a passingly brief abundance of caution against conceit.
And yes, with Nelsons brilliantly underlining every character and episode, the BSO played it for all it was worth, and probably much more, saturating us into the cleansing bucolic warmth of orchestral bath salts.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer