Richard Strauss’ Josephs Legende

Richard Strauss’ Josephs Legende
Richard Strauss' Josephs Legende

As Giuseppe Sinopoli’s DG recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden seems to no longer be universally available (although you can find, currently, a cheap copy at Amazon here), this new performance now takes centre stage.

We tend to think of Richard Strauss as an opera composer. Josephs Legende, Op. 63, TrV 231, though, is an extended (72-minute) single-act ballet written between 1912 and 1914. The title is more often give as Josephslegende (one word). The piece is intimately bound up with Diaghilav’s Ballets russes (the same company so associated with Stravinsky). This is the famous story of Joseph (as the booklet notes point out, think Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat). While it might have appeared just on the edge of a World War in 1914, the music is pure escapism, and beautifully written.

This isn’t Naxos’ first rodeo, as there is a recording in their catalogues by the Buffalo Philharmonic under JoAnn Falletta. But there is a warm to the Staatskappelle Halle that resonates deeply with this score. If Fabrice Bollon does not quite have Sinopoli’s forensic detail (coupled with great emotion for the many soaring themes), he directs a confidant performance of great strength and integrity.

Here’s the Naxos promo video:

As Fabrice Bollon points out, his piece requires an orchestra larger than in any of Strauss’ operas, which limits the number of performances one might here (I have never heard this live, for example). But what a piece it is. From the outgoing emotion of ‘Sulamith’s Dance’ to the lightness of ‘Dritte Tanzfigur drückt das Suchen und Regen each Gott aus’ (Third Dance Figure expresses the searching and wrestling after God…).

There is a central Leitmotif (recusing theme) heard initially at Joseph’s entrance (track 10 on the Naxos recording); it was taken from an earlier ‘Rose-Picking Dance’ from his score Kythera. Strauss’ scoring is magical (try ‘Vierte Tanzfigur: Joseph hat Gott refunded’ (Fourth Dance Figure: Joseph has found God …: note there is a mistranslation in the Naxos booklet for this as ‘Third Dance Figure’).

The piece is a masterly journey, whether one opts to follow the music with the provided synopsis (as the above video suggests) o to experience this as a purely symphonic outflowing. Despite its Biblical subject matter, don’t expect Salomé; instead, this is a fine exegesis of the score that concentrates on its charm. Bollon clearly has the piece’s overall shape in mind at all times, and offers an (appropriately) technicolour experience. If the Halle players do not have the warm of sound (and depth) of their Dresden counterparts for Sinopoli, this remains a fine performance of a work that really should be heard.

Here’s the complete Sinopoli, which includes score:

The Naxos disc is available at a discount from Amazon at this link; streaming links below.

R. Strauss: Josephslegende | Stream on IDAGIO
Listen to R. Strauss: Josephslegende by Fabrice Bollon, Staatskapelle Halle, Richard Strauss. Stream now on IDAGIO
Richard Strauss' Josephs Legende


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