In 1947, the 83-year-old Richard Strauss, then the world's most famous composer, and living as an impoverished exile in Switzerland, found himself forced to travel to England to collect the royalties that had been frozen during the war. It was Sir Thomas Beecham and Ernest Roth, Strauss's English publisher, who first thought of turning the visit into an occasion to honor the composer. Beecham had been an early Strauss enthusiast, and was responsible for the English premieres of both Salome and Elektra.
The festival that Beecham and Roth planned was to include several events, three of them conducted by Beecham himself. But clearly the highlight came on the evening of October 19in the Royal Albert Hall, a concert conducted by the composer and featuring three of his own works: Don Juan, the Burleske for Piano and Orchestra, and the Sinfonia Domestica. A final concert, this time featuring the BBC Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, followed on the 29th during which Strauss conducted a single work, the popular Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks.
Only the performance of the Burleske was recorded by the BBC; a shame really, for it was the only disappointment in an otherwise gloriously successful series of events. The unknown pianist Alfred Blumen was an old friend of Strauss's who had spent the war as an exile in London barely surviving on the fees he charged for piano lessons. The composer had intended to provide Blumen with a lucrative engagement, but amazingly, the pianist proved difficult to work with. You'd think Blumen would have hesitated to quibble over a score with the composer himself, but such was the case; and the resulting performance, not surprisingly, is mostly humorless and perfunctory.
Recently a collection of off-air home recordings has come to light, and this includes, among other treasures, the missing items from the Strauss festival. That's certainly the good news. The bad news is that these recordings were made on 78rpm acetates with all the resulting surface noise that process entails. And there's another problem too. Given that the professional engineer who recorded them only had one machine, the performances are punctuated by short gaps that tell us where he had to change sides. Still, Paul Baily's remastering is nothing short of miraculous. And you don't have to take my word for that. On a second disc that also includes the BBC performance of Til Eulenspiegel (the package comes as two discs for the price of one), Testament has given us the original, unretouched recording of the Philharmonia Don Juan, so we can compare it to what the same performance sounds like after Baily's remastering. That original is barely listenable; the remastering, though still inferior even to studio recordings of the time, at least lets us hear what must have been an unforgettable occasion.
During his lifetime Strauss was an active conductor, and not just of his own music. His approach was pragmatic, nuts and bolts, the very opposite of Furtwangler's fog-bound mysticism. Asked for advice by a young conductor, Strauss smiled ruefully and said, “Never look at the brass, it only encourages them.” On the podium, Strauss's manner was undemonstrative. As one critic observed, “his left hand never leaves his side, and his right seems to do no more than beat time. But how exact that beat is! How infinite are the gradations of expression conveyed by slight variations in the movement of the stick.” When it came to his own music, Strauss was understated, content to let his flamboyant scores speak for themselves.
By the time he got to London, however, Strauss hadn't conducted for three years and was beginning to doubt his ability to physically endure a full-length concert. Also after his tumultuous (and controversial) experience during the war, he was a broken man. When a young reporter asked the composer what his plans for the future were, Strauss didn't hesitate a moment before replying, “To die.” Apparently there were also some initial problems with the Philharmonia musicians, who had trouble understanding what the composer was trying to tell them.
Happily, the concert itself shows no sign of physical limitation or poor communication. On the contrary, Strauss sounds entirely revitalized by the occasion, and the orchestra responds to his presence with total unanimity and a white-hot intensity. The Don Juan is, if anything, more youthfully impetuous and urgent than Strauss's studio recording, and the Sinfonia Domestica full of warmth, humor, and (in the big climaxes) a sense of majesty. Given that these were to be Strauss's last appearance as a conductor, it's good to note that he went out with a bang and not a whimper.
So, in the end, here is a great musical occasion that fully lives up to its reputation. The question is, where did the magic come from? Certainly the musicians of both orchestras knew they were participating in a one-of-a-kind event; they would never again get the chance to play these scores with Strauss at the helm. But I think another factor was at work too. At the time of these concerts, the war was not yet three years over. The conductor was a man whose country had spent much of its genius and resources trying to reduce the city of London to ashes. No doubt some, perhaps many, in both these orchestras had lost loved ones in the conflict. But there is no trace of animus, of hate, in these performances. Quite the opposite, in fact. What we hear is the joy of former enemies joining together in a common enterprise, the production of life-affirming music.
With its restricted sonics, I guess this release is for Strauss enthusiasts only. But those who are interested in the period shouldn't hesitate. What one hears in these performances is history being made, an occasion for the ages.
Til Eulenspigel's Merry Pranks:
Burleske for Piano and Orchestra: