The Metamorphosen really is "a study for 23 solo strings" -- it's scored for 23 individual instruments (10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos, and 3 double basses).
"Metamorphosen . . . is a work I have loved, on paper, as a concept, for nearly thirty years but which I had long since written off. . . . All that changed when I first heard Karajan's magisterial recording. For weeks . . .. I played that disc, passed through the eyes-uplifted-in-wonder stage, went well beyond the catch-in-throat-and-tingle-on-the-spinal-cord phase."
-- Glenn Gould (1976), quoted on the Arkiv Music website
As we'll see, my experience with the Metamorphosen is rather different from Glenn Gould's, but rest assured, we are going to hear the Karajan recording in question. The point to take away here is that this is an extremely unusual, and extremely complex piece, this product of Richard Strauss's final years.
No, we haven't finished with Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos -- or, for that matter with his Four Last Songs. But since the Four Last Songs have already raised the subject of Strauss in his final years, I thought this might be a good occasion to fill out that picture a little.
As we learned several weeks ago ("Richard Strauss: 'Music is a holy art,' sings Strauss's Composer -- plus Two (out of Four) Last Songs, part 2"), the last of the Four Last Songs to be completed, the Hesse setting "September," was completed on Sept. 20, 1948, when the composer was 84, less than a year before he died, on September 8, 1949.
THE WORKS ON TODAY'S MENU ARE
EARLIER, BUT NOT BY THAT MUCH
Though Strauss was still a plucky septuagenarian when his last opera Capriccio, with a libretto by his friend Clemens Krauss (also a celebrated conductor, of course), was premiered, all the way back in October 1942. The Metamorphosen for solo strings was (were?) written under the crushing weight of World War II, between August 1944 and March 1945.
We've talked about Capriccio, (see the May 2013 "Sunday Classics chronicles" post "Revisiting Richard Strauss's Capriccio") and heard the often-excerpted final scene, and I've noted that despite a good deal of effort, I've never warmed to the opera, save for some bits and pieces, of which the choicest piece, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know, is the "Moonlight Interlude" that sets the stage for the Countess's concluding monologue. It's an outpouring of the kind of soaring, long-breathed melody that Strauss could do better than anyone else ever has, even at this age.
R. STRAUSS: Capriccio, Op. 85:
We've heard these performances before, but why not hear them again? This is a piece that, when I listen to it, I'm as apt to listen to five or ten times as once. I've grouped them a little differently this time, though. Let's start with these three performances.
Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded November 1985
Vienna Philharmonic, André Previn, cond. Telarc, recorded October 1992
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, cond. Orfeo, recorded April 1999
Now here are three more performances, which have something in common.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Clemens Krauss, cond. Live performance, 1953
Vienna Philharmonic, Horst Stein, cond. Orfeo, recorded live at the Salzburg Festival, Aug. 7, 1985
SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart Georges Prêtre, cond. Forlane, recorded live in Mannheim, May 29-31, 1999
What this second group has in common is that, unlike the first group, this group is all extracted from complete performances of the opera. Does this make a difference to the way the interlude is performed? Well, there's no way of saying on this "evidence." It just seems to me something worth thinking about. (The Karajan and Fischer-Dieskau recordings were made in conjunction with the famous final scene.)
R. STRAUSS: Metamorphosen
(Study for 23 Solo Strings)
As I mentioned up top, my experience with the Metamorphosen isn't like that of Glenn Gould, who told us how much he loved the piece on paper, in concept, but had despaired of ever hearing the concept come to musical life until he heard the 1969 Karajan recording. Me, I've always wished I could be fascinated even by the concept. I've just never really gotten the piece. I can tell that it's serious, and I guess beautiful, but not beautiful, even if not in the irresistible way of the "Moonlight Interlude" from Capriccio.
So today I'm just throwing the piece out to you, confident that you can do better than I have. For help, here's a portion of the Wikipedia article (which includes recorded samples of the five musical themes):
As with his other late works, Strauss builds up the music from a series of small melodic ideas "which are the point of departure for the development of the entire composition" (Jürgen May, 2010, in "Late Works," in The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss, page 182). In this unfolding of ideas "Strauss applies here all of the rhetorical means developed over the centuries to express pain"(May 2010, page 187). However, Strauss also alternates passages in a major key expressing hope and optimism with passages of sadness, as in the finales of both Gustav Mahler's 6th Symphony and Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony. The overall structure of the piece is "a slow introduction, a quick central section, and a return to the initial slower tempo" which echoes the structure of Death and Transfiguration (David Hurwitz, 2014, in Richard Strauss: An Owner's Manual, page 78).I hope that helps as we turn to the music.
There are five basic thematic elements that make up Metamorphosen. First, there are the opening chords. Second there is the repetition of three short notes followed by a fourth long note. Third, there is the direct quote from bar 3 of the Marcia Funebre from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Fourth, there is a minor theme with triplets. Fifth, there is the lyrical theme "that becomes the source of much of the contrasting music in major, sunnier keys" (Hurwitz 2014, page 79). The second theme does not stand on its own, but is put preceding the third and fourth themes. Its most obvious source is Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example the short-short-short-long repetition of G played by the horns in the third movement. However, it has other progenitors: the Finale of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony (a personal favorite of Strauss as a conductor) and the Fugue from Bach's Solo Violin Sonata in G minor BWV 1001. Strauss also used it the Oboe Concerto written only a few months after completing Metamorphosen, displaying "a remarkable example of the thematic links between the last instrumental works" (May 2010, page 183). Indeed he had also used this motif over 60 years before in his youthful 1881 Piano Sonata.
At the end of Metamorphosen, he quotes the first four bars of the Eroica Marcia Funebre with the annotation "IN MEMORIAM!" written at the bottom where the basses and cellos are playing the Eroica quote. As one of Strauss's last works, Metamorphosen masterfully exhibits the complex counterpoint for which the composer showed a predilection throughout his creative life.
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Clemens Krauss, cond. Philips, recorded Jan. 21, 1953 [27:33]
Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded November 1961 [28:04]
Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, cond. DG, recorded August 1969 [27:43]
And here it is again, in three performances by the Staatskapelle Dresden. (Dresden has always been a major "Strauss city.")
Staatskapelle Dresden, Franz Konwitschny, cond. Broadcast performance, Feb. 5, 1955 [25:29]
Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe, cond. EMI, recorded January 1973 [25:08]
Staatskapelle Dresden, Herbert Blomstedt, cond. Denon, recorded Feb. 5-9, 1989 [28:58]