R. STRAUSS: Josephs Legende
A ballet by Richard Strauss? And for Diaghilev? It happened, with the premiere of Josephs Legende taking place in Paris in May 1914. However, in spite of initial enthusiasm for the project, Strauss's progress was slow and it took almost two years to complete the score. The biblical story is about young Joseph, his attempted seduction by Potiphyar's wife, and salvation by an arch-angel dressed in gold. Strauss said, "The chaste Joseph isn't at all up my street and if a thing bores me I find it difficult to set to music. This God-seeker Joseph, he's going to be a hell of an effort." When he showed what he had written to Hofmannstahl the latter was not impressed; Nijinsky had wanted Strauss to write "the most unrestrained, the least dance-like music in the world, to put down pure Strauss for this leaping towards God." There are many opportunities for dances by various characters including, in addition to Joseph and Potiphyar, Turkish boxers, slaves and "dance figures." However, the ballet's action is static, Strauss's score typical of the composer in a less-than-inspired mood. None of the music for this ballet approaches the sensuousness and excitement to be heard in Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils" written about a decade earlier.
Another reason for infrequent performances is perhaps because Legende is scored for a huge orchestra which means great costs for presentation. In 1947 Strauss prepared a 23-minute Symphonic Fragment for smaller orchestra; this occasionally is heard in concert halls and has been recorded by Neemi Järvi and the Detroit Symphony on Chandos, and by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony on Delos. I haven't heard Denon's complete recording with the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra directed by Hiroshi Wakasugi, but it is hard to believe that it could match the quality of DGG's new issue. Sinopoli's Strauss is luxuriant -- his Salome (with Cheryl Studer) one of the finest recordings of the opera -- although his Elektra (with a miscast Alessandra Marc in the title role) disappoints primarily because of limitations of the singers. He is perfectly attuned to the colorful orchestration of Legende and does what can be done for Strauss's rather docile writing. It is to DG's credit that they have provided 28 tracks with a detailed description of proceedings in each.
Recorded live in September 1999, the performance is outstanding, the rich orchestral textures wonderfully captured. It isn't mentioned if this recording was made during a ballet presentation; if so, the dancers are remarkably quiet. Recommended for those who must have their Strauss complete.
R.E.B. (September 2000)