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Days of Strauss: The Munich Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann in Music They’re at Home With

June 25th through the 27th the NSO will perform Richard Strauss’ Hölderlin Hymnswith Karita Mattila. Mikko Franck conducts. Earlier this year, I heard Mattila in those very songs with the same orchestra with which I also first heard Mikko Franck conduct. This is a recollection of the little Strauss cycle of the Munich Philharmonic this spring.

If the music of Richard Strauss is associated with any particular city, that city is not Berlin (where he got his conducting-feet wet), or Dresden (where most of his operas where premiered), or Vienna (where he was co-director of the State Opera), but Munich. Richard Strauss was born in Munich, son of the first horn player at the Munich Court Orchestra (now the Opera’s Bavarian State Orchestra), second cousin to that ensemble’s concertmaster (who taught him violin), and nephew to the brewery owner  George Pschorr.

And among Munich Orchestras, none have currently made Strauss more their own than the Munich Philharmonic. Neither Mariss Jansons of the BRSO (despite a terrific  Till Eulenspiegel recently) nor Kent Nagano heading the Bavarian State Orchestra are explicit Straussians. Christian Thielemann—utterly un-Bavarian in so many ways but more in tune with the late romantic musical soul than perhaps any other conductor of his generation—is an overt Straussian. The first this city has had since Wolfgang Sawallisch left the opera house in 1992. Good Strauss, any orchestra in Munich is capable of. For consistently great Strauss, the Munich Philharmonic is the address of choice.

This isn’t really news, but it was impressively reaffirmed in three Strauss concerts the orchestra put on earlier this year. Strauss rarities were on the menu for the middle string of concerts (March 5th, 6th, 8th) that included works so rarely played that even Thielemann had not been familiar with them and used—a rarity with him in Strauss—the score.

The first concert opened tenderly with the Capriccio’s sublime prelude—a sextet so fragile, so moving that it encapsulates the character of the Countess from the most beautiful of Strauss’ neglected operas. If you like  Metamorphosen in principle, but find that a touch too meandering, the  Capriccio Sextet
 was made for you. As the front bench string players of the Munich Philharmonic delivered beyond the call of duty, Thielemann and half the Philharmonic, on his encouragement, listened from the orchestra stalls. A fitting prelude followed by the three  Hölderlin Hymns op.71 (1921) with Karita Mattila whose bold outfit made her look like an East German discus thrower in evening dress and heels. That image wasn’t quite inappropriate given the required—and more than sufficiently supplied—force necessary for to compete with the unbridled orchestral explosion that Thielemann encouraged.

These songs are very rarely heard, but apart from the demands on the soloist who needs to sing right ‘through’ the orchestral luster, there is no reason for this neglect. Among the three songs is contained everything from the very wistful essence of Strauss à la “Frau ohne Schatten” (in “Hymn to Love”) to Strauss’ boldest harmonies in “Love” (encored) which sounds as though Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony was dropped into the Straussian crockpot. Mattila, who overcame the acoustic challenges of the Philharmonic hall easily enough, sang as if made for these particular, mercilessly gorgeous pieces.

After intermission, the   Second Horn Concerto
 (the pendant to his youthful and brilliant first such work) created pensive, even fragile mood of late Straus with the Philharmonic’s solo hornist Ivo Gass not letting the challenging but idiomatic concerto get the better of him. Equally off the beaten Strauss-path and equally enthralling the “Intermezzo Interludes”. Intermezzo, even less often performed outside Germany than  Capriccio, is typical Strauss: A sturdy-rustic counterpart to the mythical realm of his “FrOSch”, ‘earthing’ his art and opera by tackling an utterly domestic, unashamedly autobiographical situation with more than a wink of the eye, lest the genre be taken to seriously. Strauss asked Hofmannsthal for this theatrically linked complement, but his librettist declined, citing lack of competence in the desired genre of matrimonial love and jealousy. Mundane (though always deeply sympathetic) as the topic of a jealous wife may be, that cannot faze the gorgeousness of the music which, if listened to in the filtered form of the Interludes, becomes plainly obvious.

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