Strauss: Josephslegende (complete ballet)
Would Nijinsky, after his highly original choreography for The Rite of Spring, ever have wasted his talent on Strauss’s Josephslegende (The Legend of Joseph)? Though he was its intended choreographer, the rift with Diaghilev and the arrival on the scene of another very pretty young man, Léonide Massine, nipped Nijinsky’s career in the bud. Yet the CD’s inclusion of two earlier works rather show up the tawdriness of Strauss’s Ballets Russes score. The slow, sensual build to an erotic lather in the Love (Final) Scene from Strauss’s second opera, Feuersnot, is fully justified by its memorable themes, such as he failed to provide in Josephslegende. The Festmarsch may be the first orchestral work of a very assured 12 year old, but its directness, at least as Järvi presents it, only highlights Josephslegende’s lack of conviction.
Like the Ballets Russes’ presentation of ‘God-seeker’ Joseph, Strauss’s ballet music seems wrapped up in reams of fake gold. Yet there’s some attractive lighter music at the ballet’s core: Järvi, his woodwind – first flute especially – and solo strings make the most of it. Some of the somberness with which Potiphar’s wife approaches the innocent’s bed comes across well, too. But alongside the Feuersnot excerpt, the denouement can only seem banal the more heat the performance generates, and the more opulent the sound.
In an alternative recording Iván Fischer, who says he believes in the ballet, at least makes it bearable with wirier Budapest forces. That version (reviewed in July 2007) also has a full synopsis, while Järvi’s version offers nothing to guide you through the action – even the movement titles are only identified by their German tempo markings and not by any plot description.