STRONG: Le Roi Arthur / Die Nacht (Adriano/ Inc. Betta International/ Moscow Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559048)
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The magnificent suite, Die Nacht, unpardonably neglected in modern concert repertoire, was written during the summer of 1913 and first performed by Ernest Ansermet with the Orchestre du Kursaal in Montreux, on 27th November 1913, in an afternoon concert, together with works by Beethoven, Mozart, Weber and Wagner. The following year, on 9th March, Carl Ehrenberg, to whom the suite is dedicated, performed it in Lausanne, where Strong was then living, with the local Société de l'Orchestre. On that occasion, the composer himself participated, playing the English horn. The first American performance of Die Nacht was given by Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1939, a broadcast which Strong had heard and of which he, apparently, highly approved. The suite, subtitled Four little symphonic poems for orchestra, is perhaps Strong's most typical work, since it reveals the composer's love for miniatures and characteristic pieces, wrapped up in modest symphonic guise and scored for large symphony orchestra. The suite features different aspects of nocturnal atmosphere from a romantic standpoint, as a lyrical contemplation of nature in the first and second movements, or as a revival of real (second movement) or unreal (fourth movement) events of poetical inspiration. In the first piece, At Sunset, in E flat, a peaceful string melody is gradually brought to a climax involving all orchestral forces, suggesting a moment of despair or tragedy and falling back into serenity. Featuring a melody of almost Mahlerian character, this piece can be considered as Strong's Adagietto, although Mahler's more famous one restricts the orchestral forces to harp and strings. Peasants Battle-March, in G major, is a homage to Joachim Raff, whose marches from some of his symphonies had become very popular at that time. In fact, Strong's piece reminds us strongly of the March of Leonore, Raff's Fifth Symphony, with the interesting novelty that Strong's is quicker in pace, suggesting peasants either running to battle with extreme fanaticism, or that they have overslept. A Trio, opening with a gloomy melody by the English horn, leads to a solemn, but still mysterious variation of the march theme, becoming wilder and wilder and ending in a recapitulation, until the marching peasants disappear into the night. In the Old Forest, in D minor, is another highly lyrical piece in which the string section predominates and manifests itself in the middle section through elaborate rustlings and solo parts from among eleven subdivided sections. As with all the other movements of the suite, the music dies away into night again. In the score of The Awakening of the Forest-Spirits, Strong has provided his own poem:
Oh how I love the whisperings
Of Kobolds, Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, -
These small triumphant Immortals!
A green Gnome, lovelorn sighing,
Was greeted with fairy laughter, -
Elfish, mocking laughter:
When from afar there came the call
O a wandering hunters horn, all
The Sprites vanished!
In this piece in changing keys, we hear Mendessohn's fairies joining with the Queen Mab of Berlioz to meet some of Wagner's Walkyries on the Harz Mountains. The atmosphere changes from the extremely mysterious and hushed to orgiastic tumult and whirling, until the hunter's call leads the spirits to a more gentle and human dance, ending in mocking laughter, before returning to the earlier orgiastic mood. The nightmare fades into the darkness, probably at a first glimpse of daylight.
The extended tone poem for large orchestra, Le Roi Arthur, is Strong's only overt homage to Richard Strauss, but it is so well written, of such impact and with predominantly typical landmarks of Strong's style (incidentally, the second section has nothing Strauss-like) that one almost forgets its stylistic provenance. More than that, the composer creates many episodes in which harmony and dissonance (Strong's \cayenne pepper"), reach further and the orchestration becomes more realistic and harsher. Nevertheless, we can almost certainly consider this piece as Strong's own Heldenleben. The manuscript bears the final date of 1916, but apparently composition had started already around 1890-91, immediately after the completion of the equally ambitious Symphony No.2 "Sintram". Unlike Strauss, who was usually happy to assign subtitles to single movements or sections of his tone poems, Strong avoided this, but felt the necessity of having his score accompanied by a long and detailed thematic analysis. This may be useful to specialists or students, but is clearly too prolix for general audiences. Additionally, three short quotations from Tennyson appear between the music of the first half of the score, revealing that the composer had found there his source of inspiration. The full thematic analysis, as translated and revised by the composer's friend, the Swiss linguist and musicologist Rober Godet, is reproduced as a preface to the printed score of Le Roi Arthur. It is interesting to note that other composers of Strong's time, who had also studied in Germany, had been inspired by the tales of the Round Table, recounted by Sir Thomas Malory in 1470 in Le Morte Darthur, and taken up by Tennyson in his Idylls of the King in 1859, continued ten years later in The Holy Grail. The first musical work inspired by these legends was probably Henry Purcell's semi-opera of 1691, King Arthur. Edward MacDowell had produced his tone poem Lancelot and Elaine in 1888 and dedicated it to Strong. In opera, in addition to Wagner's Parsifal and Lohengrin, we find Isaac Albéniz's Merlin (1898) and Karl Goldmark's Merlin (1886), among others. Ernest Chausson's magnificent opera Le Roi Arthus (1894) and his symphonic poem Viviane (1882) are, of course, products of the French School. In the twentieth century, composers Arnold Bax and Willem Pjiper can also be mentioned as having been inspired by Breton legends of the Round Table. Le Roi Arthur is constructed like a symphony in three connected movements, of which the third appears as a Scherzo and Finale. The first movement starts with a slow introduction, in which the leitmotifs of Arthur and Mordred, representing the antagonistic forces of Good and Evil, are displayed. In the first section, of largely heroic atmosphere (Andante-Allegro), King Arthur's youth under the guidance of the magician Merlin and the apparition of the magic sword Excalibur are described, followed by Arthur's mission as mature man and king, and the institution of the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur's wife Guinevere, her adulterous love for Lancelot, discovered and denounced by Mordred, and Guinevere's flight make up the musical material of the second part of this section. The following short Adagio represents Arthur's loneliness, longing for happiness and his despair, interrupted by fits of rage and the urge to revenge himself upon Mordred, who has been the cause of his ruin. The Finale, containing tempo indications like Allegro agitato, Allegro guerriero and Eroico, can be subdivided into two episodes, of which the first represents