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 Recording of the Week  Neeme Järvi conducts Richard Strauss’s ballet, Josephslegende

Josephslegende (The Legend of Joseph), written in 1914, was the first of only two ballets completed by Richard Strauss during his entire lifetime. Despite early success, it was quickly forgotten, and is still relatively unknown today, receiving only infrequent performances and recordings. A new recording, then, just released on Chandos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi, is a very welcome addition to the catalogue.

Neeme Järvi
Neeme Järvi

Strauss composed Josephslegende in response to a commission from Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with Vaslav Nijinski in mind for the role of Joseph. In the end Nijinski, who had choreographed Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps the year before, had been fired from the troupe and never danced the part. This, along with the outbreak of the First World War, are often cited as reasons why the work quickly disappeared from the repertory, although it must be said that the immense orchestration can’t have helped future performances, and neither can the fact that Strauss himself also spoke disparagingly of it on occasions.

The orchestration is indeed enormous and includes violins in three sections, violas and cellos in two sections, six horns, four trumpets, four trombones, quadruple woodwind (including a contrabass clarinet), four harps, four celestas, six sets of timpani, wind machine, piano and organ! It isn’t pure power and volume which Strauss is looking for though, but the range and combination of orchestral colours to create sometimes magical effects – and there are plenty of those here.

So how good is this work then?

Well, I think we can safely disregard Strauss’s own opinion as any sort of guide. If we followed composers’ thoughts then loads of truly great works would be ignored, including virtually the entire output of Tchaikovsky!

True, it doesn’t sound perhaps quite as through-composed as his greatest works, but this is unashamedly mature Strauss, at times fresh, at others lush and sensuous, then suddenly jarringly violent. It is an incredible range, with the large orchestra providing vivid colours and climaxes every bit as majestic as those in the Alpine Symphony.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra play this technically very difficult score magnificently, whilst Neeme Järvi creates real tension and nervous energy by his carefully calculated tempos and tempo relationships. Solos are well phrased and characterised, while orchestral balance is close on perfect, with clarity and detail always prevalent but never compromising the richness of orchestral sound as a whole.

I’ve listened to it several times now, once following the detailed synopsis provided in the booklet, and then a few more times just reminding myself occasionally what order the various things in the story are happening. It’s really exciting stuff, with some absolutely magical moments, and well worth getting to know.

Also included on this disc is the Love Scene from the opera Feuersnot, and the Festmarsch, Op. 1, his first published orchestral work, which Strauss had written at the tender age of twelve.

A really welcome addition then to anyone’s Strauss discography. Strongly recommended.

Strauss, R: Josephslegende

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC