Zubin Mehta conducts Richard Strauss' Sinfonia domestica

Mehta's Munich performance of Sinfonia domestica has completely changed how I think and feel about this piece

Zubin Mehta conducts Richard Strauss' Sinfonia domestica

The Sinfonia domestica is one the lesser-known of Richard Strauss' orchestral canvasses. But it is notorious in its difficulties (not least a high E above top C for first horn - if memory serves, the second horn, a low-register specialist, has to play a top C sharp - top C is generally given as the ceiling for the instrument). Performances are rare.

But not for Zubin Mehta, who has made somethigngof. speciality of the work. The Munich Philharmonis is a fine ensemble (remember, there are many documents of the great Sergiu Celibidache conducting them and bringing them to massive heights). Mehta clearly inspres them in a reading of X-Ray clarity and yet great style and power.

Let’s start by looking at the piece itself.  For once, I am going to direct you to a Wikipedia article, because not only does it cite the principal themes (Husband, Wife, Child), you can hear them (played on a keyboard) in little sound samples, too!. Sinfonia domestica is Richard Strauss at his most descriptive: a day in the life of a great composer, in sound. As the booklet notes remind us, Strauss once said, “I find myself every bit as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander [The Great]”.

The Sinfonia domestica arrived four years after Ein Heldenleben. In the latter, Strauss was the hero; here is is merely an everyday man. A day with his child and wife; and after the baby is put to bed, a love scene. Plus a bit of marital conflict for good measure.

Zubin Mehta has lived with this piece for decades, and he is the greatest living interpreter. Here, for example, is a performance from Vienna:

... and here with the Berliner Pohilharmoniker in 2011.

Such knowledge of the score - and love for Strauss' music without ever getting ssentimental - shines through this Munich performance. from November 2021, recorded in Munich’s Isarphilharmonie (that city’s most modern concert hall). The detail of the opening, the way it shifts character so suddenly to that sweet oboe, is remarkable. The four husband’s themes are heard in the first track (Thema I); followed by the wife’s themes (Thema II) and finally the child’s themes (Thema III).

It is the Wife that gets the most expansive section, nearly three times what her husband ‘says’. And yet how tender the child's material. One might suggest this is the exposition, or the first movement perhaps, as we move straight into the Scherzo, seven minutes that remind us of Strauss’ expertise in his writing for wind. The Scherzo inhabits a sense of kittenish play, but also exhibits an expansive lyricism suggestive of deep love. The Munich orchestra is increadibly responsive to Mehta’s direction; and how tender the “Wiegenlied” (Cradle Song) that follows.  

The love scene is remarkable. We hear ever line, the texture is immaculate, and yet the passion is palpable. Note the quote from a Mendelssohn “Venetian Gondola Song” from that composer’s Songs without Words, heard right at the outset in clarinets:

The finale brings an argument in the form of a masterly double fugue. It also bings moments of exquisite beauty and mastery that one associates with Strauss’ very finest moments.  There are some lovely violin solos (unsurprisingly when one considers those in Heldenleben!) and they are brilliantly done here by the Munich orchestra’s unnamed leader (no fewer than five concertmasters are listed on the Munich Philharmonic’s website). How carefully Mehta calibrates the glorious close, and how radiant it sounds - and, once more, with every detail present.

It is no exaggeration to say this Munich performance of Sinfonia domestica has completely changed how I think and feel about this piece; put another way, the Sinfonia domestica moved from the periphery of Strauss’ output to centre stage. Not every day I get to say a disc reframes music in such a powerful way ... absolutely, fervently recommended