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Domestic Dispute about Strauss

The National Symphony Orchestra featured three concerts with cellist Han-Na Chang under Leonard Slatkin. Daniel Ginsberg reviewed the Beethoven-Prokofiev-Strauss concert more or less enthusiastically in the Washington Post, though he obviously couldn't stand Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica, which he didn't deem worth the effort or time of a performance.

Unfortunately, it defied imagination that the conductor would put the orchestra through so much time and energy to perform Strauss's "Symphonia Domestica," Op. 53. [...] To modern listeners [...] the score of more than 40 minutes paints a picture of musical sprawl. Though filled with some pleasingly lush instrumental writing, this is one of the composer's most disjointed works.

As the NSO invested its skills in this repetitive and saccharine score, one pleaded for something else. [...] With playing this fine, the Strauss by no means torpedoed the whole evening. Still, it seemed that the NSO's abilities would have been better spent on other music.

The Concert Hall was only three quarters or two thirds full, but those who were there got a good start with the Leonore Overture #3 (op. 72a), which was done with lavish feeling and in a highly evocative manner. Still, it felt too slow to be a cohesive whole in the first half of the work. Once Slatkin stepped a bit on the pedal, it worked out very nicely and the trumpet call from the wings was at least a cute idea. The gradations of tone, the changes of undercurrent, however, were excellent and betray the fact that the NSO continues to improve. That it also needs to improve is no secret, nor is the fact that Mr. Slatkin is probably one of the dozen of best conductors for specifically that job.

Maestro Slatkin's 60 years don't keep him from getting excited, either, as proven by little leaps on the podium that accompanied the final of Leonore 3.

S. Prokofiev, Sinfonia Concertante, Han-Na Chang, Pappano
The Sinfonia Concertante, op. 125, Prokofiev's first of two pseudo-cello concertos (the Concertino for Cello and Orchestra, op. 132, is the other one) was, for all its limitations, rather smashing. Han-Na Chang has a very clean, almost lithe tone that's laden with the tension and energy so often found in young female string players. She skates on the cello with passion: others (not necessarily to lesser effect) dig. Both styles can be impressive when done well, and Han-Na Chang did her work very well. (The horns could have been more in tune on a few rare occasions in this relatively plush Prokofiev work.)

The beautiful and fragile looking Han-Na Chang, whose only fault tonight may have been a tone that was ultimately not involving enough, attacked her cello in the more furious passages that belied nonsensical ideas such as attributing fragility to her. True to her style, even in those movements she was more a wild gazelle than a stampeding rhinoceros.

R. Strauss, Complete Orchestral Works, Rudolf Kempe
R. Strauss, Sinfonia Domestica, Parergon, David Zinman
The Sinfonia Domestica, played directly in front of oneself, is (pace Daniel Ginsberg) a most pleasing thing. First of all, it's Strauss. Not yet the Strauss of the light textures that make Capriccio one of the greatest works in music, but the harmonies are all there. Of course, the work always tempts us to deduce exactly what part of the music represents what element in Strauss's home life... alas this curiosity, this drive to "understand" the work is—at least according to Strauss himself—counterproductive to the enjoyment of the music. In a way he, like Mahler, concocted some of the most programmatic music ever written, only then to demand it be listened to as (quasi-) absolute music. If you can, the rewards are high indeed.

Gentler, more lighthearted, and with a healthy dose of irony and friendly self-deprecation, the Sinfonia Domestica lacks the bombast of Ein Heldenleben but makes up for it with charm. Rereading Mr. Ginsberg's excerpt makes me want to denounce his Strauss-bashing as rubbish. To convince yourself of the work's qualities, try it (on headphones!) in the just about definitive version (as are all of Strauss's orchestral works) with Rudolf Kempe on EMI. If the complete set seems a bit too much (though it's all worth it), you can find a good budget version in David Zinmann's Arte Nova recording. (He, too, has a dirt-cheap complete Strauss box set.) Or you might wait for Christian Thielemann to do it with the Munich or Vienna Philharmonic, which should not be to far off in the future (on DG). The evening was worth it, then, not despite but in part because of the Strauss. Had, however, Han-Na Chung stuck around and participated in Strauss's Don Quixote, I too, would have gladly seen the Sinfonia off the program.

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