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The nine symphonic poems of Richard Strauss are among the most striking and virtuosic works the orchestral repertoire has to offer. The name of the genre originated with Franz Liszt (Strauss himself preferred the term “tone poem”), but several works by Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner’s theoretical writings also contributed to the development of the new form. Like Wagner, many of his successors were convinced that the history of the symphony had been perfected and brought to a close with Beethoven’s Ninth. In the future, instrumental compositions were also to refer to extra-musical programmes.
Richard Strauss based his tone poems, which were composed between 1886 and 1915, on writings by Shakespeare, Cervantes and Nietzsche. They include humorous episodic narratives in Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), natural phenomena and scenes from his own family life in the unusual Symphonia domestica. The spectrum of these works, which were the basis of the composer’s initial success, ranges from the early works Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung, both tempestuous but in very different ways, to Also sprach Zarathustra, which Stanley Kubrick used in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the monumental Alpensinfonie (Alpine Symphony), with which Strauss concluded his cycle of tone poems.
The Berliner Philharmoniker are a Strauss orchestra par excellence. The composer often appeared with the Philharmoniker himself and conducted the premiere of the final version of his Macbeth in Berlin. After Hans von Bülow’s death in 1894, he even acted as an interim conductor of sorts until Arthur Nikisch was appointed as the new chief conductor. Herbert von Karajan’s Strauss performances still enjoy legendary status. The very first CD released featured Karajan’s interpretation of the Alpensinfonie with the Berliner Philharmoniker. They also made a memorable film of a performance of Don Quixote with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich representing the tragi-comical hero.
The Strauss tradition continued after the Karajan era. Claudio Abbado conducted a staged production of Elektra, and Sir Simon Rattle led productions of Salome and Rosenkavalier. The film Trip to Asia centres around the interpretation of Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) under Sir Simon. His successor as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko, is acclaimed not least for his magnificent interpretations of Strauss’s works. One year before taking office, he conducted two tone poems by the composer in the opening concert of the 2018/19 season.
Along with such seasoned maestros as Zubin Mehta, Neeme Järvi, Semyon Bychkov and Daniel Barenboim, younger conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Daniel Harding and Andris Nelsons are also strongly drawn to the composer’s music. His works offer an almost unparalleled wealth of vividness and drama, instrumental colours and moods and are thus an ideal test of the abilities of conductors – and orchestra members. The tone poems often contain famously virtuosic parts for solo violin – for instance, in Heldenleben and Also sprach Zarathustra – which are played in the Digital Concert Hall recordings by the concertmasters of the Philharmoniker.