DePaul Concert Hall, January 30

Richard Strauss occupies a rather curious place in music history: the last of the Wagnerians and the first of the modernists, he mopped up after one revolution and helped usher in another. Yet he’s at best a major transitional figure whose creative powers peaked in the first decade of this century, then went into a long steady decline. In 1911, the year of Der Rosenkavalier, his sublime comic-opera homage to Mozart, this wunderkind from Munich was among the most celebrated musicians in the world. A few years later Schoenberg and his Vienna boys rushed past him on their way to the promised land of serialism. By the end of World War II Strauss was a sad has-been; his musical aesthetics seemed old-fashioned, and his reputation had been tarnished by his association with the Nazis.

This parabolic path was neatly traced by Concertante di Chicago in a recent concert. The survey was unusual in that it focused on Strauss’s output for chamber ensemble–which doesn’t contain his most significant contributions, but which certainly deserves more scrutiny.

First on the program was one of the very early efforts that established him as a prodigy to watch. For a bit of juvenilia–he was 16–the Serenade in E-flat Major for 13 Winds (1880) is quite remarkable, showing a clever, nimble mind still under the sway of late classicism. Not at all surprisingly, this one-movement andante loosely follows the contour and spirit of Brahms’s serenades, while its sonority has the bravura of Schumann’s Concertstuck for Four Horns. The Concertante di Chicago, most of whose 30-plus members also belong to the Lyric Opera and Grant Park orchestras, performed the string transcription by H. Ley. Their playing, under Hilel Kagan, was earnest, genial, but not always unanimous; it couldn’t convey the breezy, mellow tone one would expect from a top-notch wind band.

This serenade indirectly launched Strauss’s distinguished tour of duty as a conductor. An impressed Hans von Bulow, the Wagner partisan-turned-archenemy, right away premiered it with the famed Meinigen orchestra and took the young Strauss under his wing. Soon von Bulow resigned his post, and the lucky protege found himself, at 21, heading a venerable institution. The Romance for Cello and Orchestra, dedicated to a well-to-do uncle, dates from this period. It too is a melodious stretch of fluff that here and there brings to mind Schumann. The Concertante’s reading was pretty yet straightforward to a fault; only soloist William Cernota managed to put feeling into his generous quota of flowing passages. I appreciated encountering this youthful exercise, but I don’t think I need to hear it again.

By 1895, when Strauss completed Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, his tone poem par excellence, he had more or less turned his back on the Brahms crowd and the classical past and was a devout Wagnerian (So devout that he’d stand up to conduct only Wagner’s music.) He had also invented a hybrid form–an ingenious blending of Liszt’s symphonic poem and Wagner’s leitmotiv–that allowed him to indulge in grandiloquent musical portraiture. The first work in this form, Macbeth, was an honorable mess. But in Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, and Don Quixote, the self-proclaimed tone poet managed to create operas without words, craftily adapting the Wagnerian music drama and using the mechanics of theme transformation to develop characters.

In Till Eulenspiegel the picaresque adventures of a medieval rogue are told in episodes in rondo form. Its lusty, bawdy, witty score–one of the most complicated in existence–calls for huge orchestral forces, which a catty critic of the time wrote might be better suited for “the English war in the Transvaal than as an illustration of episodes in the life of a poor vagabond.” Obviously the Concertante wasn’t about to take on Till full force. (Leave that to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has championed Strauss since the days of founder Theodore Thomas.) Instead, five of its members presented the poor man’s version: Franz Hasenohrl’s cheeky 1954 transcription–for violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, and French horn–that lives up to its jokey name, Till Eulenspiegel–Einmal Anders! (“Another Way”). The send-up delivered by John Robinson, Collins Trier, Charlene Zimmerman, James Birkenstock, and Robert Johnson was fairly vivacious and droll, but it could have been sharper, zestier, and more assured. (Chicago Pro Musica has turned this work, available on Newport Classics, into a memorable calling card.)

Strauss loved the female voice. He put brilliant, alluring soprano arias into the best of his operas, from Salome to Ariadne auf Naxos, and churned out song after song, many of which were popularized by his wife. As a lieder writer he doesn’t measure up to Schubert, Schumann, or even Brahms. But quite a few of his songs, with orchestral accompaniment–including Four Last Songs–are masterpieces, rivaling Mahler’s in texture and rapturousness. Two of the three songs on the program–from opus 68, all set to Clemens Brentano’s poetry belong in this category. “Ich wollt ein Strausslein binden,” a tender lover’s lament backed up by a plangent orchestra, invites comparison to the coloratura arias in Rosenkavalier and Ariadne. “Saus’le, liebe Myrthe” is a teasing lullaby filled with lovely sounds of nature. Only “Amor” betrays Strauss’s bombastic streak. Soprano Elizabeth Futral was a knockout, singing all three with ardor and a sense of drama: she was lovelorn in one, coquettish in another, exaggeratedly radiant in the third. The orchestra, urged on by Kagan, gave her avid support.

In the years between the two world wars Strauss concentrated his energy on his conducting duties and on producing more operas. Like Beethoven, he was honored as a relic from a legendary past. Unlike Beethoven, he had run out of fresh ideas. Young Turks such as Schoenberg and Berg had taken a couple giant steps beyond Death and Transfiguration and Salome with the much more daring Transfigured Night, Erwartung, and Wozzeck. Strauss was at a loss creatively. In the 30s the Nazi regime courted him, and he let them–he was, after all, a Teuton. He continued to compose, yet even he seemed to realize it was time to retire. His last opera was completed in 1941.

Two years later, with his beloved Munich in ruins and its opera house destroyed in an air raid, Strauss took up his pen again and started Metamorphosen. Scored for “23 solo strings,” the half-hour adagio is a tearjerker, a dirge for a glorious, proud bygone era. One of its transfigured themes quotes the stately “funeral march” from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, another protest against the wanton destruction of ideals. But in its serene resignation this music also recalls Mahler and Wagner. One may be turned off by its maudlin meandering, but one understands the sorrow of a dejected old man living on his memories. (The impoverished Strauss made his last public appearance in London in 1947; for a handsome fee, he sat wearing a tattered coat in the royal box at Drury Lane while Thomas Beecham conducted Don Quixote.) The Concertante’s strings, sounding lush and velvety, gave an invigorating performance that paid attention to the music’s varying textures and its resolute grief.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christian Steiner.