Berliner Philharmoniker - Claudio Abbado
Donjuan Burleske for Piano and Orchestra
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Der Rosenkavalier
All Music Guide
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Well, I never! A New Year's Eve Concert - and just for me! With the Berlin Philharmonic and their chief conductor, Maestro Claudio Abbado from Milan. What's more, the list of hand-picked guests stretched from A for Ar-gerich to Z... well, actually, no, I tell a lie: it stopped short at V for von Stade. But they were all honoured to accept. Or, rather, I should say: I was honoured that they accepted...
Forgive me, I should have introduced myself. May I? Strauss, Georg Richard Strauss. Written not with "8" but with "ss" - a small but subtle difference. I was born in 1864 - a good year, I think. My father played the horn in the Royal Bavarian Court Orchestra in Munich, so that my earliest memories were of music. After a few youthful transgressions of a musical nature, over which I'd prefer to draw a decent veil of silence, I suddenly shot to prominence with three remarkable tone-poems, Don Juan, Tod und VerkJarung (Death and Transfiguration) and Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra). But - although I say it myself- I owe my real reputation to my operas, from Salome to Capriccio. And to my lieder, of course. I expect you know my Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)? My wife, Pauline, was a singer, and writing good tunes came easily to me. I didn't care much for politics and did what I could not
to get involved, but as President of the "Reichs-musikkammer" from 1933 to 1935 I had to compromise a bit. It was only when they tried to stop me working with Stefan Zweig on Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) in Dresden that I said to myself: "Richard, you're a composer, not a politician." After that I had nothing more to do with them - except to write the Olympische Hymne for the 1936 Berlin Olympics...
Berlin was never really my scene: it tended to be Dresden or Vienna. But even in Vienna, I've been on the waiting-list for more than forty years, hoping that one day I'd figure on the programme for the New Year's Concert at the "Musikverein". Of course, my namesake, Johann Strauss, is a Viennese institution, but I'm not totally unknown there: the Vienna "Konzerthaus" opened with my Festliches Prd-ludium (Festival Prelude) in 1913, the revised version of Ariadne auf Naxos was heard at the Court Opera in 1916 and don't forget that my Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) was premiered there in 1919. I was given the freedom of the city, and in April 1918 they even organized the first Viennese Richard Strauss Week. Of course, I didn't begrudge Johann his moment of glory: after all, I was one of his greatest admirers. I remember once turning down an invitation from him - for lack
of time, you understand. I dashed off a few lines to him from the Hotel Bristol: "My esteemed Maestro Strauss, I did not arrive until this morning and, hunted animal that I am, unfortunately have to take the first train home tomorrow, which robs me of the great pleasure that it would have given me, on the one hand, to be able to accept your most kind invitation to call on you on Friday and, on the other, to be able to visit you at all. [...] I hope that a more opportune occasion may soon bring me back to Vienna, in which case my first priority will be to express my liveliest admiration for you in person. With my very best wishes [...], I remain, your sincere admirer, Richard Strauss". But as for the Vienna New Year's Concert -nothing doing.
Fortunately, however, there's Berlin. And it's Berlin that I now have to thank for what I can only call a fully personalized New Year's Concert or, to be more exact, a New Year's Eve Concert. It was held on New Year's Eve 1992, so that I was even able to get in before Johann Strauss, whose turn did not come until the next day in Vienna. In Berlin they concentrated entirely on my lighter side -1 did have a lighter side, you know. And once again it was with Don Juan that things really got going.
Just imagine: it was at the Monastery of San Antonio in Padua that I first had the idea of writing this piece. I'd been attracted to Niko-laus Lenau's poem and later to Paul Heyse's stage play, "Don Juan's End". I wanted to surprise the world with a completely new musical
language and in this I clearly succeeded, since the first performance in 1889 was an outright triumph. I can still remember the pleasure I felt: "Don Juan an outstanding success, the piece sounded magical and went superbly well, unleashing what, for Weimar, was a pretty exceptional storm of applause." I imagined the piece as a kind of rondo in first-movement sonata form, with a beautiful oboe melody and a great deal of fire in the orchestral writing. For a time I thought of turning it into an opera but finally gave up the idea.
I was initially rather put out to discover that the programme also included my Burleske for Piano and Orchestra. After all, this "piano concerto" under another name was one of my earliest attempts at composition. The solo writing is pretty undisciplined and, to be honest, isn't particularly profound. But there are a few good ideas in it and, God knows, there's no reason to be ashamed of such virtuosity. I really wanted to dedicate it to Hans von Billow, but he found so many faults with it that I finally dedicated it to Eugen d'Albert, who gave the first performance in 1890.
But Till Eulenspiegel was a real success. My first opera, Guntram, hadn't really turned out right, so I gave up the idea of writing an opera on Till Eulenspiegel in 1894. But the idea wouldn't leave me in peace and so I tried to work off my frustration by writing an orchestral rondo. All cunning and musical high spirits. But don't ask me what the piece is all about: " It's impossible to give a programme for' Eulenspiegel': what 1 imagined when writing the individual parts would often seem strange when put into words and might even cause offence..."
That's exactly what happened with Der Ro-senkavalier: a married woman in bed with her lover - and, what's more, on the stage of the Royal Saxon Opera in Dresden. Today you could get away with it, but in 1911...! In the finale of this "comedy for music", however, I was able to indulge my love of women's voices to my heart's content: the Marschallin, Sophie and her attractive "Knight of the Rose", Octavian, sing to each other so beautifully that, while I was writing it, my wife kept calling out to me from the adjacent room: "Go on! Go on!" - "Do you think so? Won't it be too much?" - "No! Go on, go on!" And something else: I was finally able to prove that, ten years after the death of Johann Strauss, here was another composer who could write waltzes. Me. But, to quote the Marschallin, "... in the 'how' there lies the whole difference..."