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Iván Fischer, Richard Strauss, Josephs Legende

In the introduction to this 2007 recording, Iván Fischer points out that the score of Richard Strauss’ Josephs Legende is frightfully difficult. I’ve no doubt that’s true – especially when no player in an orchestra is likely to have seen, much less played, a single note of it before. Fischer goes on to suggest that Josephs Legende, which he calls beautiful (yes!), rich (yes!), and especially lyrical (yes!), should be considered among Strauss’ best compositions.


If “best” is supposed to denote anything meaningful at all, then Josephs Legende is not likely included. But that’s not to say that it isn’t a wonderful work. There are not that many clunkers in Strauss’ output to begin with, andJosephs Legende is certainly a (much, much) better work than FriedenstagDie Schweigsame Frau,Die Göttin im Putzzimmer (“The Goddess in the Boudoir”), Festmusik for the 2600th Anniversary of Japan, or even the Sinfonia Domestica. Nor is it to say that it wouldn’t be enjoyed more than some “better” works. I.e. more than Elektra by those who like their Strauss lyrical. Or better than those who would love Die Frau ohne Schatten were it not for want of time. I will, with the memory of Josephs Legende lingering strongly ever since hearing this recording, grant that it's one of the most oddly seductive Strauss compositions, though.

available at AmazonR.Strauss, Josephs Legende,
I.Fischer / Budapest FO
Channel Classics

available at AmazonR.Strauss, Josephs Legende,
G.Sinopoli / Dresden StaKap

Josephs Legende is a Sergei Diaghilev commission for his Ballets Russe, based on a libretto concocted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and the colorful Count Harry Kessler, that jack of all trades, diplomat, and friend of seemingly every important or famous personality of the early 20th century. Strauss accepted the idea – but the religious story didn’t sit right with him. More labor than love might have gone into Josephs Legende, even as Strauss made sure that the music displaced any all-too mystical or religious aspects of the story with earthy eroticism. The result is a work that, composed on Elektra and Salome’s heels, is less ambitious than either, shorter, less varied, but not much less enticing. If Elektra has curdled blood flowing in its veins, and Salome a sweet poison, Josephs Legende is fueled with Viennese Mélange .

You can hear ideas in it that foreshadow Die Frau ohne Schatten. An unkind, but hardly inaccurate, description of Josephs Legende would be that of a test-run for the latter opera. Set to a story of Hofmannsthal that was much more to the liking of Strauss.

The ballet, when it was finally finished and performed under Strauss’ own direction on May 14th, 1914 in Paris, was a success. Even if Vaslav Nijinsky, for whom this “least danceable music possible” was created, was no longer part of the production after he had hastily married Romola De Pulszky, which caused the jealously outraged Diaghilev to fire him on the spot. Michail Fokine (choreography) and Léonide Massine (as Joseph) substituted. With over 130 performances since, the ballet was hardly a failure. But even though it was resuscitated after World War I, it seemed to symbolically draw the curtain on the 19th century (to paraphrase Michael Kennedy) and has spent most of its time since on the sidelines of Strauss’ musical output.

A shame for this lusty and lush hour of opera-meets-dance-meets-tone-poem that sends Straussian climaxes through the over-sized orchestra by the minute. Even vigorous repeat listenings have not turned me off Josephs Legende. I’ve been enjoying, alternatingly, the Giuseppe Sinopoli / Dresden Staatskapelle recording (DG; available as an “Arkiv-CD” in the United States) and the new SACD recording of Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra (Channel Classics).

Either one of these – and the third available recording on EMI with Rudolf Kempe’s complete orchestral Strauss, also with the Staatskapelle – are excellent. The Staatskapelle has Strauss in its blood and Sinopoli sweeps through the score in broad grandeur, with sumptuous expanse and gravitas. Fischer, meanwhile, is a touch fleeter, lighter. More tone-poem with the former, more a hint of ballet with the latter. If Fischer could be pointed to as being more delicate it’s not to say that Sinopoli muddles anything. Both bring out all the voices wonderfully… in an orchestra among the biggest that Strauss ever summoned. Which is saying something for both, the conductors and the size of the orchestra. If anything does, it's the hint of extra splendor in the Channel Classics production's sound that tips my personal balance toward Fischer.