Shoot Out the Lights With a Rarity From the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic raised some eyebrows last year when they resurrected Richard Strauss’ rarely performed Symphonia Domestica. The composer conducted the world premiere in New York in 1904, to bad reviews, and soon afterward essentially disowned it. And that’s too bad. In typical Strauss fashion, it’s vast and meticulously detailed. As a portrait of marital angst, it’s not the classical music precursor to Richard and Linda Thompson’s iconic Shoot Out the Lights, but there are many similarities. There’s a brave recent live recording with Zubin Mehta leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming at Spotify, that may make classical fans reconsider this vivid, cinematic, slyly humorous and persistently cynical symphony.
Meant to be performed as a single contiguous movement, right off the bat there’s a uh-oh motif as the husband and wife get into a pre-dinner spat, riffs leaping from far corners of the orchestra. It seems that they’re “doing it for the kid,” as the cliche goes. There’s a proto-Woody Allen sensibility to much of this, a quintessentially cosmopolitan couple in distress. Tenderness and shrill combative swells joust for centerstage as Mehta leads the ensemble upward to an uneasy grandeur, the strings receding with an aching vibrato as gentleness returns: the baby wakes up. And then the fight hits fever pitch.
The wounded theme in the third “movement” is where Mehta and the orchestra hold the music in check, to masterful effect: as the program notes indicate, this is tears before bedtime. Even the poor kid’s dreams afterward are turbulent, as the winds bubbling amid dreamy strings give way to a towering heroic tableau.
From there, there’s the usual Strauss sturm und drang, themes intermingled meticulously, the whole group including the percussion section busting springs if not strings. Is the oboe theme afterward a concession to an afterglow, or an ominous portent? It would seem the latter, the orchestra’s lustre notwithstanding.
The horror movie motives return and lurk beneath the next morning’s bustle as its bellicose proportions grow gargantuan…and all of a sudden the clouds clear, with an almost prayerful violin theme. It’s here where the composer loses the thread: the majestry and triumph of the conclusion comes across as strained and farfetched, no matter how many devious false endings Mehta gives the audience to smile at.
Maybe to sweeten the pot – and bring a few converts into the fold – the album also includes a live performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. For Mehta and the orchestra, there’s plenty of life left in this old warhorse. His direction is finely detailed and on the slow side in the first movement, ingenue versus murderous dictator as their famous, ersatz Middle Eastern cat-and-mouse game gets underway. Violinist Henrik Hochschild’s silken legato is a persistent high point.
Contrasts, suspense and warlike foreshadowing are in welcome hi-definition throughout the second movement, up to a fierce conclusion. Scheherazade’s travelers’ tales and bedtime stories are especially lush and on the muted side in the third movement, pierced by puckish, precise winds. Orchestras love to play this because everyone gets involved, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s harmonies, particularly in the brass and swirling strings of the concluding movement, are so imaginative and colorful. In the end, love conquers all. As it has to, ultimately, for the world to survive. Have you reminded your loved ones not to take the needle of death this year?