Edinburgh International Festival – Josephslegende

Josephslegende, Op.63

Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 24 August, 2006
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

What a difference a year and a day makes! The previous evening in Edinburgh Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra had reprised their Stravinsky The Rite of Spring in the Usher Hall, following an acclaimed performance at the Proms the previous week. One night later they jumped forward in the ballet world almost a year to give a stand-alone performance of Richard Strauss’s first ballet score, Josephslegende, composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company (now minus Nijinsky – who had blotted his copy-book in his lover Diaghilev’s eyes by having the temerity to marry! – but with the newly discovered Massine as a replacement).

Josephslegende was premièred in Paris on 14 May 1914, just 50 weeks after the première of The Rite of Spring (28 May 1913) – and is a completely different soundworld, of course!

While this may be one of Strauss’s most rarely heard scores, it would not be too difficult go guess its creator. Even though he was worried that the subject matter (foisted upon him by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Count Harry Kessler) might be too close to “Salome” – as Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce captive Joseph and, when discovered, turns on him accusing him of rape and demanding justice. The fact that Joseph is saved by an angel at the end and that Strauss chose a musical idiom closer to “Der Rosenkavalier” than “Salome” or “Elektra” (let alone the ballet’s almost total obscurity) certainly need cause no confusion to today’s audiences.

Given as persuasive a performance as this, under indefatigable enthusiast Iván Fischer, one does begin to wonder why it is not heard just a little more often. I can’t imagine that the Budapest Festival Orchestra has the work in its repertoire, so I assume it was a special request from the Festival, to which the orchestra responded magnificently. The Usher Hall may have been only between a third and a half full, but the acclamation was about as warm and loud I’ve ever heard there and the artistic (if not financial) success need not be doubted.

With the double basses at the back, cellos to his right, percussion behind the latter and first violins (including a table-top wind machine, with slatted bands of material around a drum, rather than a single sheet of material more usually seen in British orchestras), as well as a crowded platform with the wind section including a contrabass clarinet, Fischer manipulated his forces as if this was his favourite piece of music.

The opulence of the opening Feast and the various dances to entertain Potiphar and his court, through the much more delicate and chamber-like 15-minute four-part solo for the chaste Joseph (Tim Ashley’s detailed synopsis allowed the audience to easily follow the action) and then the attempted seduction-cum-accusation scene, Strauss’s glistening, sumptuous and thoroughly over-the-top score came blazing through.

I suspect it unlikely I’ll get a chance to hear Josephslegende again or, if I do, played this well. As far as I know, it has only had a couple of recordings (one being by Sinopoli, his 1999 live recording from Dresden on DG) and I can’t imagine even enterprising Channel Classics (who has released the BFO’s Rachmaninov and Mahler recordings) will find it financially viable to issue Josephslegende. Whether the BBC microphones recording Mackerras’s Beethoven cycle (No.4 was played earlier on this evening) and the late-night Bruckner cycle also are taking the centrepiece ‘Masterworks’ concerts I don’t know, but I’d certainly clear an evening to re-listen to Josephslegende if Radio 3 does broadcast what was a real treat.

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