Richard Strauss's two periods of concerto composing came early and late in his career. These two discs contain any of it that I have heard of, from the violin concerto written in his teens together with the first horn concerto and the piano Burleske representing the first phase, and then the second horn concerto and the oboe concerto dating from WWII followed by the Duett-concertino from a couple of years after. That work was his last instrumental composition, and it might be more appropriate to change the biographical time-scale from year to day as Strauss himself does in the Four Last Songs and place it in his hours of Abendroth and Schlafengehen. And there is a bonus as well in the form of the horn concerto by Richard Strauss's father, himself a horn player of distinction. This piece deserves better than the slightly supercilious assessment that it is given by the liner-note writer, it tells me where Richard Strauss got his talent from, and it is a very welcome addition to my own collection.
The recordings date originally from a period covering nearly 40 years. I find no problem with any of them, but I had better try to give you some idea of what I have no problem with, because I have seen the recorded sound in the Burleske criticised sharply. I would have been surprised if it had been bad simply because the conductor is Anthony Collins who had a way of obtaining good recorded quality even in the far-off era of 1967. I don't suppose I listened in any hyper-critical way, because I had a reason for being far more interested in the performance, but I remain unfazed by the supposed faults, and it may be that some copies of the set are better than others, in which case any prospective buyer would be well advised to check the matter out first. If I have a criticism of the sound at all, it would be that it is just a tad bland and inoffensive in the Duett-concertino, which was recorded under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy as recently as 1993. However the violin concerto and the oboe concerto are from the same source, and the sound is well up to letting me enjoy the sheer beauty of both, beauty in the performances mirroring the exquisite lyricism of the creative inspiration. When you learn that the violin soloist is Boris Belkin that will be no surprise to you, and if the oboist Gordon Hunt is new to you let me report that I was enchanted by his flexible and long-breathed phrasing, doing justice to the wistful undertones of the first movement as well as to the haunting sweet-and-sour idiom of the finale.
Back in 1955 when the horn concertos were committed to disc it was standard to place soloists in the foreground. The battle for a more realistic balance was long and hard although won eventually, but there was a time and place for everything and I love the first concerto here with Tuckwell dominating the sound. It suits this piece, it suits this soloist's manner, and for these reasons it suits me down to the ground. The effect is less marked in the other two concertos, so I'm inclined to think that Tuckwell and Kertesz sought the type of balance that they are given in the first concerto by conscious choice. Heldenhorn extroversion is the name of the game in my opinion.
I am particularly pleased to have this account of the Burleske by Gulda, because it is in admirable counterpoise to the high-octane performance by Rudolf Serkin that I have enjoyed for so long. Serkin is thrilling and no two ways about that. What he gives us is the super-fit and ultra-confident young athlete of the Alpine Symphony. However this is Strauss, and my idea of Strauss is less hard-edged. Gulda is admirably lively himself, but he socks it to us just a little bit less, and I noticed with interest that his timing is only about half a minute longer than Serkin's. Half a minute more over a piece lasting 17 or 18 minutes is not dawdling, and I sense I am going to like this more and more as I get used to it. I have yet to be put off by the recorded sound, and may that day be long in coming.
The sheer attractiveness of the music is what should sell this pair of discs. Strauss was the last of the great German romantic melodists, outliving Elgar (whom we can put in this category for the moment) by more than a decade. With neither of them is there any sense of defying new trends or of making any kind of statement in their confident and natural melodic inspiration. They did it because they could. Schoenberg felt that the late romantic idiom was played out, and if his Pelleas & Melisande is what the late romantic idiom meant to him I would have had to agree. Even in Elgar there is a strong tone of neurosis, but with Strauss extroversion ruled right up until the end, for all the sense of the encroaching shadows that he conveys so beautifully. He does a lot to make old age tolerable, and I bless his memory.