Richard Strauss: Josephslegende, Rosenkavalier, Die Frau ohne Schatten (Orchestral Suites)

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta (Naxos 8.572041)

17 September 2009 2 stars

FallettaOn the face of it, this disc presents an attractive programme of three of Strauss's concert pieces cobbled together from scores for the theatre. They appear on the disc in descending order of popularity, starting with the Rosenkavalier Suite, followed by the Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten and the Symphonic Fragment from Josephlegende.

The original scores were products of the 1910s and of collaborations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal; Strauss produced the suite for Rosenkavalier to capitalise on that opera's enormous popularity, whilst the other two were attempts after World War Two to salvage the best music from scores which he worried would never find a place in the repertoire. The grand, allegorical fairy-tale, Die Frau ohne Schatten, has now not only secured a place of sorts in the repertory but is well represented on record; Josephlegende, a ballet composed on a biblical subject for Diaghilev's Ballets russes has all but been relegated from the stage, but has been well served by a couple of recent, complete recordings (Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra on Channel Classics, and Giuseppe Sinopoli's on DG from the late 90s).  

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra have obviously been well drilled by JoAnn Falletta, playing through these scores with considerable skill, even if, perhaps unsurprisingly, they lag some way behind the orchestral premiere league in terms of tonal sheen and naturalness of approach. This is probably most obvious in a Rosenkavalier Suite that is highly unidiomatic and fatally lacking in the Straussian Schwung which, especially in this work's opening minutes, is mandatory. At a slightly sluggish tempo, the horns lack definition and the strings are rather limp, while the intonation in the wind and brass lacks accuracy. Nor are matters helped by recorded sound that is flat and unexciting. Things improve slightly in the 'Presentation of the Rose' section, but the playing, while perfectly decent, is simply not a patch on other orchestras in this work. Some of the glissando details are nicely outlined in the waltz episodes, but neither conductor nor orchestra seem to have the necessary instinct to bring this music to life, even if the famous 'Trio' is well managed.   

I found the Frau ohne Schatten Fantasy a little more successful, with Falletta's skill at controlling the lyrical passages being put to good use, first in the extended intermezzo (that appears originally in Act One, Scene Two) then in the music from the duet of Barak and his wife – 'Mir anvertraut' – which is started well by the trombone soloist. There's a certain lack of sparkle in the magical episodes, however, and there are some dodgy moments intonation-wise in the difficult build up to the music of the final quartet, which in turn fails to reach the sort of crunching apotheosis others have managed. (Compare, for example, Sinopoli's outrageously drawn-out account in his DG recording of the Fantasy with the Staatskapelle Dresden.)

While both Rosenkavlier and Die Frau ohne Schatten undoubtedly contain some of Strauss's best music, few would claim the Josephslegende is on the same level. However, it certainly has its moments, including one melody – representing Potiphar's wife – that is out of the top drawer. And the 1947 'Symphonic Fragment' wisely cuts off much of the bombastic flab of the original; Strauss had a certain amount of difficulty identifying with the more mystical and religious sections of the scenario by Hofmannsthal and Harry Graf Kessler. Again the Buffalo players make a very respectable stab at this most outrageously Straussian score, but simply cannot compare with the tonal sheen of either Sinopoli's Dresdeners or Fischer's BFO in their complete recordings – admittedly without the slightly reduced orchestration of the Fragment – or the wonderful lightness Kempe brings to the Fragment in his complete EMI set, now available even more cheaply on Brilliant Classics.

After a disappointing Rosenkavalier suite, this disc does improve yet it still lacks the natural interpretative flair and sonic glamour – both in terms of playing and recorded sound – that is essential for all these works. A useful coupling, perhaps, especially at Naxos's small asking price, but worth investing elsewhere to hear these scores idiomatically performed in all their Technicolor glory.

By Hugo Shirley