ON April 19 Richard Strauss conducted a concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This was Strauss’s last appearance with an orchestra in America, and in certain respects it was the most interesting event of his American tour. The programme included Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, the Prelude to »Tristan und Isolde,« »Don Quixote« and »Don Juan.« Although none of the vaster tone·poems was played the concert was intensely exhilarating. Two utterly dissimilar musical factors were working and, for once, they were in complete harmony with each other.
The Boston Orchestra has long stood as the ne plus ultra of mechanical and polished dexterity. It has been exhausively trained, and its players are more than accomplished artists individually. As an interpretive unit, however, this orchestra has not earned the same prestige. Enthusiasm, and the power of generating it in the listener, have been too often lacking in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On this occasion Richard Strauss, whose characteristic when on the orchestral stand is universally acknowledged to be authority and an authority before which the most pronounced temperaments are compelled to bend, performed his own works upon a practically perfect instrument. The result was a marvellous exhibition of vigour, delicacy and rhythmical beauty.
Peculiarly instructive was the opportunity afforded us of hearing Strauss conduct works by Beethoven and Wagner. Already in New York he had given a somewhat conventional rendering of Mozart’s »Jupiter« Symphony. The little Eighth Symphony of Beethoven he led precisely and gracefully, only once or twice injecting into it a tempo agitato, which made it for a time a work of the hour. The Prelude to »Tristan und Isolde« was performed with blazing imagination and incorruptible grandeur. The orchestra put forth a power that one feared had decayed for ever. It was a master mind, even among modern conductors, that imagined and realized this unparalleled rendering of Wagner’s Prelude.
In spite of the enthusiasm caused by »Richard the Second’s« homage to the memory of »Richard the First,« Strauss enthusiasts were holding themselves in leash for what was to follow. When all is said, the Prelude to »Tristan« is no more than an overture, lasting for a few moments and intended chiefly to herald the rise of the curtain upon an opera remarkable for vocal melody. Played in the concert hall, the orchestra can hardly refrain from attempting to make more of it than Wagner intended. Even Strauss’s rendering had something in it of the tour de force. But this cannot be said of the composer’s conducting of his own tone-poems. These are provinces of the realm of absolute music and the concert-hall is where they should be heard. On this occasion the circumstances of the performance were wholly ideal.
The »Don Quixote« is, indeed, a wonderful work, far in advance of anything that Strauss had done up to the date of »Zarathustra.« One must admit that it sacrifices many honoured artistic principles, among which are the single dominating climax, sustained homogeneity, of structure and the cherished freedom of »absolute« music from dependence upon material concepts, but this sacrifice is more than outweighed by the least of the work’s positive merits. Sins of omission are the worst charges that even a clever pedant can bring against it.
The more frequently »Don Quixote« is heard, the stronger becomes its hold upon the emotional garment of the soul, musical sense. One feels that in this world Strauss reveals the native style of his genius for the first time. In »Tod und Verklärung« and »Don Juan« he composed in the manner of other men, although more splendidly than they. »Zarathustra« is somewhat of the nature of an experiment. It also typifies a pose. Through it we are shown Strauss, the Amazer of the World. »Zarathustra« is, indeed, magically effective and in spite of an occasional taint its brilliance is likely to make it a permanent favourite. In »Don Quixote,« however, Strauss tries no longer to imitate others or to scale Olympus by unprecedented splendour of achievement. Much external effectiveness is relinquished. To a casual listener the work seems by no means pretentious. But to those who have become even partially familiar with it the score is a garden of exquisite musical thoughts. It is characteristic, it is at times naively picturesque and in more serious moments it is as expressive of sincerity and awe as any music yet written. Under Strauss’s leadership the poem shone as a perfect whole. It seemed an »entire and perfect chrysolite« of musical fancy and pathos. Delicacy and restraint were in evidence, and the rendering was technically impeccable. But, which is far more important, a vital, guiding spirit stood among the instruments and made the performance one to be remembered for years.