War and peace with Richard Strauss

Listening to pianist Bertrand Chamayou’s dazzling new recording of Burleske by the youthful Richard Strauss under Antonio Pappano got me thinking, for the first time ever, in terms of a Teutonic Petrushka – with similarly dizzy badinage, where piano, drums and orchestra busily nudge each other for prominence, Chamayou more fleet-fingered than virtually any of his rivals – a poet too where needs be – while Pappano and Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia leap to the challenge of responding to him with boundless enthusiasm (Warner Classics 0190295028459, £13.50 – out soon!).  It’s enormous fun, occasionally treading the as-yet distant incoming tide of jazz (a similar playfulness and sense of ‘cool’) and often prophetic of the mature Strauss.

Ein Heldenleben came some thirteen years later by which time Strauss the joker had become Strauss the philosopher, this 47-minute epic taking in a finger-twisting fiddle solo (the hero’s loving but sometimes obstreperous wife, here characterfully played by concertmaster Roberto González-Monjas), a tub-thumping battle scene, works of peace and ‘The Hero’s Withdrawal from the World’. Bearing in mind the horrors that we have all witnessed over the last year or so we might take a caustic look at the work’s second section – ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ (mean, carping woodwinds on the attack) – as a soundtrack for political mudslinging at those who have tried to row us back to safer shores.  Here as elsewhere Pappano focuses mood and colour with an acute ear, but never more so than when peace and withdrawal arrive, and the Santa Cecilia strings often play with breath-taking softness.

You may or may not know that the work closes with a reference to Strauss’s Nietzschean masterpiece Also sprach Zarathustra which in this context suggests that the idea of ‘self-overcoming’ (one of Nietzsche’s key philosophical concepts) reflects recent challenges faced and, indeed, overcome.

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