Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Director, Manfred Honeck, on the Strauss Tone Poem Recordings:
There are few composers who have such an impressive ability to depict a story together with single existential moments in instrumental music as Richard Strauss in his Tondichtungen (“tone poems”). Despite the clear structure that the music follows, a closer interpretative look reveals many unanswered questions. For me, it was the in-depth discovery and exploration of these details that appealed to me, as the answers resulted in surprising nuances that helped to shape the overall sound of the pieces. One such example is the opening of Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) where it is obvious that the person on the deathbed breathes heavily, characterized by the second violins and violas in a syncopated rhythm. What does the following brief interjection of the flutes mean? The answer came to me while thinking about my own dark, shimmering farmhouse parlor where I lived as a child. There, we had only a sofa and a clock on the wall that interrupted the silence. The flutes remind me of the ticking clock hand. This is why it has to sound sober, unemotional, mechanistic and almost metallic. Another such example is the end of Don Juan where the strings seem to tremble. It is here that one can hear the last convulsions of the hero’s dying body. This must sound nervous, dreadful and dramatic. For this reason, I took the liberty to alter the usual sound. I ask the strings to gradually transform the tone into an uncomfortable, convulsing, and shuddering ponticello until the final pizzicato marks the hero’s last heartbeat.
Another detail I would like to emphasize can be found in the trial scene of Till Eulenspiegel. Before Till is sentenced to death, the D-clarinet has a note that, according to Strauss, must sound entstellt (“distorted”). The problem with this note is that it is impossible to hear, because the whole orchestra enters with a fortissimo. That is why I have this “distorted” note played one octave higher than written. This way, it does not only sound higher, but tremendously entstellt. In my opinion, this must have been a mistake, because Strauss surely knew that the instrumentation he asked for makes the note inaudible.
Till Eulenspiegel’s Lustige Streiche (“Merry Pranks”) is about “funny” antics—but not all of the musically described situations are funny. Some have to be naughty, cynical, aggressive and even malicious. Many chords are marked with a sforzato. For me this is, at least in the beginning, where Till sticks out his tongue. Therefore, it is important that the sforzato sounds extremely accentuated. Another easily-overlooked detail regards the eighth-note-insertions of the horns in the first part, following bar 55. These eighth notes not only have accents, but are also marked as mezzoforte, while all the rest remains piano. It seems that Strauss wants to hear a stumbling Till, who is neither able, nor willing to walk docilely and steadily. Even the part echoing a Wienerlied (traditional Viennese songs), Josef Drechsler’s “Brüderlein fein…,” gradually loses its serene character and assumes an ironic one instead.
All three Tondichtungen highlight existential moments of human life. These life-defining moments deserve particular interpretative attention and acuteness. As the dying person in Tod und Verklärung reflects on his life, there are dance-like, swinging moments, for example, memories of his time as a student. One moment, however, seems of utmost importance to me. After the trombones have depicted “cardiac arrhythmia” in the music, the tam-tam sounds and in its echo, the soul of the deceased enters eternity. I honor this holy moment of human life by pausing with a long fermata. Then, a solemn pace follows (tam-tam and basses alternately), almost a march reminding me of a religious procession. Finally, you hear a sound of transfigured beauty with a hymn-like peak that signals eternal peace and rest. While Till Eulenspiegel’s trial scene and Don Juan’s last stormy crescendo have their peaks shortly before the end, Tod und Verklärung is composed with a long and solemn culmination to the very end.
These and countless other details allow the Tondichtungen to be told in an even more exciting way. I hope that this recording encourages listeners to continue to discover elements that make these works so vibrant and captivating even today.