Dissertations could be (and probably have been) written about Richard Strauss’s 1945 Metamorphosen, his meditative string orchestra tone poem that brings questions of his relationship to powers in Nazi Germany to the fore. Frank Almond offered a brief introduction to these issues at the Wisconsin Conservatory’s Bader Hall Tuesday night, before his Frankly Music ensemble performed the septet version of the piece. (If you missed Almond’s talk, there’s an interesting chapter on music in Nazi Germany in Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise.)
But one didn’t need to know too much about the history to feel this music’s tormented, introspective power. Almond and his cohorts (which included MSO colleagues Ilana Setapan, Zachary Cohen and Peter Thomas; along with New York guests Tony Appel, Anthony Devroye and Edward Arron) performed with stunning intensity and soul.
Strauss’s restless and often unexpected cadences suggest a spirit searching vainly for rest or resolution. And his canny use of music history – a fragment of the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony is a major motif – evokes again the hollow victory of military triumph, the wounds of war. Throughout the piece, the melodic material (if it can be called that) is quick and fragmented. But the performers made it sing. In fact, the presence of individual string voices (as opposed to the original scoring for 23 instruments) made the music all the more potent and personal.
Almond balanced Strauss’s soul-searching with a muscular sextet by Tchaikovsky (Op. 70). Called “Souvenir of Florence,” the music is anything but Italian, as Almond pointed out in his remarks (the subtitle refers to where the composer received the commission). Instead, it is most theatrically Russian (though there’s a touch of Italian verissimo in the second movement). The sextet form (a pair of violins, violas and cellos) presents the occasional problem – muddy harmonies in a few tutti passages. But it also allows some dazzling textures. Bell tones stack up into chords and then explode into rapid passage work. Lead instruments toss melodies back and forth over rhythmic pizzicato work. And dance-like melodies (like the opening of the fourth movement) soar over vigorous rhythms, which propel the music like horses pulling a troika across the Steppes. The playing was engaged and almost audaciously animated. It was a fabulous evening of music.