STRAUSS, R: Piano Sonata / 5 Piano Pieces / Stimmungsbilder (Michael Ponder/ Stefan Veselka) (Naxos: 8.557713)
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Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Piano Music, Opp. 3, 5 and 9
The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss represents a remarkable extension of the work of Liszt and Wagner in the symphonic poems of his earlier career. Born in Munich, the son of a distinguished horn-player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family, he had a sound general education there, while studying music under teachers of obvious distinction. Before he left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed some success as a composer, continued during his brief period at Munich University with the composition of concertos for violin and for French horn and a sonata for cello and piano. By the age of 21 he had been appointed assistant conductor to the well-known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von Bülow, whom he succeeded in the following year.
In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series of tone-poems that seemed to extend to the utmost limit the extra-musical content of the form. The first of these works, Aus Italien (From Italy), was followed by Macbeth, Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) and, after a gap of a few years, Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra), Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life). Meanwhile Strauss was establishing his reputation as a conductor, directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a season and taking appointments in Munich and then in 1898 at the opera in Berlin, where he later became Court Composer.
The new century brought a renewed attention to opera, after earlier relative failure. Salome in Dresden in 1905 was followed in 1909 by Elektra, the start of a continuing collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), a romantic opera set in the Vienna of Mozart, was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed by ten further operas, ending only with Capriccio, mounted at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942. His final years were clouded by largely unfounded accusations of collaboration with the musical policies of the Third Reich and after 1945 he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, returning to his own house at Garmisch only four months before his death in 1949.
While still at school, Strauss was a proficient pianist. At the same time he showed obvious gifts as a composer. He had had his first piano lessons at the age of four with his father's colleague in the Munich Court orchestra, August Tombo. His first known composition, Schneider-Polka for piano was written two years later, in 1870, the year in which he entered the Munich cathedral school. He began violin lessons in 1872 with his father's cousin, Benno Walter, leader of the Court Orchestra, who was to lead a performance of Strauss's String Quartet in A, Op. 2, in 1881. At the Ludwigs-gymnasium, where Strauss began his studies at the age of ten, there were varied musical opportunities. From 1875 he had piano lessons with Carl Niest, studied music theory and continued to compose. In 1876 a Festmarsch of his was played by an ensemble led by his father, the Wilde Gung'l, and 1881, his final year at school, brought the performance of his Symphony No. 1 in D minor by the Court Orchestra under Hermann Levi.
The piano compositions included here were written principally during Strauss's last years at school. All were published by the firm established by Joseph Aibl, by this time under the direction of Eugen Spitzweg, who sold the company to Universal Edition in 1904. Spitzweg sent a copy of the Five Piano Pieces, Op. 3, to Hans von Bülow, who, as conductor of the Meiningen Court Orchestra, did much to launch Strauss's career as a conductor, when he had him conduct his Suite, Op. 4,for thirteen wind instruments, in Munich in 1884. Bülow, however, found nothing good to say about the Five Pieces and their composer, in whom he found talent rather than genius. The wind instrument Serenade, Op. 7,proved more acceptable, persuading Bülow to commission the Suite.
The first of the Five Pieces, an Andante in B flat major, suggests the influence of Schumann, with a livelier contrasting Con moto section framed by the principal theme. The second piece, Allegro vivo e scherzando in E flat minor, opens with a passage suggesting the call of the horns. This offers a framework for various intervening episodes, varying in key and rhythm, behind which lurks the shadow of Mendelssohn. This is followed by a C minor Largo that, it has been suggested, has about it something of Beethoven, in a mood of funereal melancholy. At the centre of the piece is a livelier section in E flat major, marked Con moto. There follows an Allegro molto in A flat major, marked grazioso, that allows Mendelssohn to return in a spritely playful mood. Hints of the same composer and of Schumann are suggested in the final Allegro marcatissimo in D flat major. A contrapuntal section in the enharmonic minor key of C sharp provides contrast in a piece of considerable musical precocity.
Strauss's Sonata in B minor, Op. 5, dedicated to his friend Joseph Giehrl, again dates from 1880-81. It followed two earlier piano sonatas, written in 1877 and 1879 respectively, but was the only one to be published. The first subject of the opening movement is marked by a three-note rhythmic figure. The second subject makes its due appearance, a gentler theme in D major, with the opening motif of the movement returning in the closing section of the exposition and playing a large part in the development. In the recapitulation the secondary theme returns in B major, the key in which the movement ends. The E major Adagio cantabile, reflecting earlier influences, is a movement of lyrical charm, with a Mendelssohnian E minor section at its heart. It is difficult to avoid detecting traces of the same composer in the F sharp minor Scherzo, with its A major Trio, which returns a second time in the key of F sharp major. In the coda the horns of elfland can be heard, faintly blowing. In the Finale the two themes are variously employed, and there are brief cadenza-like passages before the sonata comes to an end.
Stimmungsbilder, allowed the English title Moods and Fancies by the publishers, were written between 1882 and 1884, a period during which Strauss spent part of a year at university, before leaving to devote himself to music. There is an inevitable association with Schumann in the title of the set and of the pieces. Auf stillem Waldespfad (In Silent Forests), an F major Andante, moves into D minor and B flat major, before the original key resumes, the whole dominated by characteristic falling intervals. An einsamer Quelle (Beside the Spring), marked Lento and in A flat major, suggests the lapping of the spring waters in its continuous accompanying figuration. The third piece, Intermezzo, in 12/8, A major and marked Allegretto, has contrast in an E major Allegro molto agitato section, and Träumerei (Rêverie), a B major Andantino, is now more Strauss than Schumann. Here, as elsewhere in these pieces, one is bound to remember that Strauss was to become a significant composer of Lieder with piano accompaniment.