Strauss: Symphonia Domestica; Metamorphosen

Staatskapelle Weimar/Antoni Wit (Naxos 8.570895)

14 October 2009 4 stars

Symphonia DomesticaThe music of Richard Strauss has not fared so well in Naxos's catalogue as that of other composers and, historically, its recordings of the major tone poems have been something of a disappointment. Until, that is, they set about recording with the Staatskapelle Weimar. The orchestra itself is very closely linked with Strauss – the composer was director of the opera there in the 1890s – and with their recording of the Alpensinfonie, also conducted by Antoni Wit, certainly gave their heavy-weight European competitors a run for their money.

This generous new coupling is perhaps even finer and Wit's reading of the Symphonia Domestica in particular is praiseworthy for its seemingly effortless understanding of the Straussian idiom. The performance balances well the dichotomy between the formal and the pictorial and is suffused with a kind of benign humour and warmheartedness which helps to bring both the composer's craftsmanship to the fore as well as the sentiments that inspired him to write the symphony in the first place. The Weimar orchestra's playing is unobtrusively excellent; they avoid the trap of turning the score into a showpiece, while Wit paces the whole performance with great skill. The final minutes, for example, have rarely sounded so unindulgent – quite some achievement given Strauss's hyperbolic enthusiasm here – and the compositional ingenuity of the finale as a whole is made to serve an overarching sense of narrative. The impression is of a story told with a humour and affection that is fully appropriate. There's passion, too, in a beautiful account of the Adagio: listen, for example, to the immaculately paced build-up to the first climax, with the horns' line spun out with a touching lyricism.  

There's a great deal of fine solo work with the winds, in particular, introducing their themes at the opening with wit and finesse, and the Weimar horns are on outstanding form. Granted, the massed strings might not have the sheen or bulk of some bands but their sound is appealing. Similarly, Naxos's engineering is unobtrusively realistic and pleasing.

Of course, the strings have the limelight to themselves in the Metamorphosen. It's a coupling that is apt and moving: these are both highly personal works but while the first brims with confidence and ebullience at the start of a new century, the second reflects on the catastrophic course that century took. As such, I found it difficult to listen to this disc in one sitting. The performance of Metamorphosen, however, is no less fine than that of Domestica, with the Weimar strings beautifully mellow and serene. Wit manages to pace the whole work skilfully, contrasting world-weariness against urgency but culminating in a moving resignation at the close. Once again, the sheer sound of the strings does not necessarily match, say, Karajan's richly upholstered Berlin players but the result is a fine sense of musical integrity, emphasising the piece's essential introspection. Strauss's most personal, valedictory utterances are given to us, it seems, unmediated and with the utmost integrity.

Naxos's Strauss campaign gets very much back on track, then, with this Weimar recording after a disappointing recent disc of opera and ballet suites from the Buffalo Philharmonic. This release would be recommendable at any price, at budget price it's an unmissable bargain.

By Hugo Shirley