by Marc Bridle
Richard Strauss' orchestral works - or at least the tone poems - are well known, but his ballet score for Josephs Legende is one of those forgotten minor masterpieces that only now appears on disc for the first time.
This performance, from a 'live' concert in the Semperoper in Dresden from September 1999, is quite superb. Giuseppe Sinopoli, revered by some (including this critic), deplored as a charlatan by many more, here directs as sensuous a performance as you could wish for.
With the magnificent Staatskapelle Dresden spreading opulence through glorious brass sonorities and a decadent, lush string canvas this score has never appeared more persuasive. Strauss' long-time collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, came up with the idea of a ballet based on the story of Joseph and his attempted seduction by Potiphar's wife. Diaghilev would stage it, Nijinsky dance the role of Joseph and Strauss compose the music.
However, problems soon surfaced because of the heavily religious characterisation of Joseph, something the atheistic Strauss (left) found difficult to resolve in writing the music for the ballet. "This God-seeker Joseph, he's going to be a hell of an effort", Strauss wrote.
There are three central dance episodes in the ballet - the Dance of the Women, Joseph's Dance and the Dance of the Slave Girls. The action starts, however, in the pillared hall of Potaphar's palace where festivities are taking place. The women begin to dance which leads on to the entry of the boxers where both the action and music degenerates into a frenzied state. The slaves bring in a golden hammock which Joseph, dressed as a shepherd, descends from and then starts to dance. His dance figures develop preternaturally from the opening one of innocence and naivety to the final figure where he dances for God's glorification.
Potiphar's wife becomes less cold and starts to feel a warmth towards Joseph which results in her asking him to join her where she presents him with a necklace - suggestively touching the nape of his neck. After the festivities, Joseph retires and sleeps where he dreams of the Guardian Angel. Potiphar's wife enters his quarters and touches his neck again - something Joseph imagines to be the angel from his dream.
As she brushes her lips against his Joseph flees to be pursued by Potiphar's wife. Joseph loses his coat and stands before her half naked, as she persistently tries to seduce him. Potiphar and the slaves enter and Joseph is seized and taunted by the female slaves in another dance. She accuses Joseph, and his punishment is to be tortured by fire.
Accused by Potiphar's Wife"
His courage, however, arouses her admiration and hate in equal measure but before he can be tortured a bright white light replaces the red glow of the flames and an Archangel enters and frees Joseph from his bondage. As Potiphar's wife strangles herself with her pearl necklace, Joseph disappears into the light of day.
Strauss' score is enormously evocative of this action. For Potiphar's wife Strauss wrote largely melodic music, and the dances themselves are inventively scored. There are more than a few nods to both Salomé (composed much earlier) and Die Frau Ohne Schatten. But there are also absolutely thrilling episodes - track 16, where Potiphar ends the festivities, with the music itself recalling the opening track. Here Strauss uses the large orchestra at his disposal to convey grandeur with surging brass and gutsy strings.
By contrast, the music for Joseph's dream (track 18) is lightly scored for woodwind (delicious flutes and oboes floating as if in a trance). A single violin (something Strauss used often in his depiction of characterisation) signals the entrance of Potiphar's wife (track 19). With Joseph standing half-naked before her, Strauss uses the brass motif that identifies Jokanaan in Salome (track 20).
With the drama of Joseph's seizure, Strauss' music becomes increasingly turbulent (the music for the Dance of the Slave Girls [tracks 23-24) is at once lurid as it is frenzied and ecstatic). The brass here play magnificently. The final track (28) sees Strauss combining opulence with a closing brass (almost Brucknerian) fanfare to celebrate Joseph's disappearance into the open air.
Strauss never shied away from using the vastness of the orchestra to achieve his goal. Here, there is a thrillingness to the sound sometimes lacking in some of Strauss' tone poems. The music is often highly seductive, even erotic. Sinopoli more than conveys this impression in a splendid recording (slightly bass-heavy). This is an important release and one that will give unending pleasure.
Bridle had to give
up his own slave girls last year. He is hoping to find some more later
in the Autumn.
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