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R Strauss: Tanzsuite; Divertimento

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl (Naxos)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

R Strauss
Tanzsuite; Divertimento, Op. 86
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Jun Märkl
Naxos 8.574217   65:53 mins


Like Brahms, Ravel and, latterly, Thomas Adès, Richard Strauss seems to have had a soft spot for François Couperin’s music – orchestrating two substantial ballet suites from his keyboard music. Yet if untroubled by notions of 18th-century authenticity, he was equally unconcerned with a dry distancing from his originals as practised by Stravinsky in his Pergolesi-based Pulcinella. Rather, his approach resembled Respighi as in such arrangements as The Birds: affectionate tributes in which they reserved the right to cross-cut sections from their various sources, add parts, enrich harmonies and extend forms to achieve the maximum in colour and charm.

So, while Strauss’s Dance Suite (1923) opens with a ‘Pavan’ scored with almost Lully-like severity, it is soon transmuting Couperin’s ‘Le Carillon de Cythère’ into an enchanting, silvery texture for harp, celesta, glockenspiel and harpsichord. And to the equivalent movement in the Divertimento, Op. 86 (1941), based on ‘Les tours de passe-passe’, Strauss delights in adding a naughty polymetric counterpoint of his own. His piercing scoring of ‘Les fauveties plaintives’ and darkly turbid treatment of ‘Les ombres errantes’ are equally striking.

Ignore those commentators who dismiss these suites as stylistically anachronistic and irrelevant to Strauss’s achievement. Closely listened to, they prove full of ingenuity and character – Strauss’s as much as Couperin’s. And the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Jun Märkl deliver them with the gravity, levity, intensity, serenity and energy they variously invite, in a clear and concert-like recorded perspective.

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Bayan Northcott