The Princess and the Bear
Dating from 1948, Strauss’s Duet-Concertino for clarinet, bassoon, strings and harp was his final instrumental work, though unlike many of his late scores it has programmatic associations. Strauss once told Clemens Krauss that it was inspired by Hans Andersen’s The Swineherd, about an impoverished prince who woos his princess while tending her father’s pigs. In a letter to Hugo Burghauser, a former Vienna Philharmonic bassoonist and the work’s dedicatee, however, Strauss came up with a fairy-tale scenario of his own, in which a princess (the clarinet) encounters a bear (the bassoon), who becomes a handsome prince when she agrees to dance with him.
Laurence Perkins, in a booklet note for his new recording with Sarah Watts and the RSNO, argues that we should ultimately think of it as Strauss’s final tone poem. This is debatable, though the scenario certainly informs the clarinet’s nervous flourishes after the bassoon’s first entry and the transformation of the first movement’s halting second subject into an expansive love theme in the Andante. The skittish final rondo, meanwhile, overlong in the opinion of many, gradually mutates into a Viennese waltz, not entirely inappropriate for a princess and her dancing-bear prince.
The performance, meanwhile, is strong, if occasionally hampered by a close recording, which catches some key-clatter and the occasional intake of breath from the soloists. Sian Edwards adopts relaxed speeds, which gives the music space to breathe, and the RSNO sound consistently good throughout. Watts does ravishing things with the great clarinet melody with which the work opens, to which Perkins responds with a gruffness that gradually broadens into deeply felt lyricism. There’s plenty of wit and bravura from them both in the finale, where Edwards’s refusal to rush also allows us to appreciate the complexity of Strauss’s musical argument, which can blur when the movement is scrambled.
Martin Roscoe, meanwhile, joins Watts and Perkins for the chamber works that form its companion pieces. Beethoven’s Op 38 Trio is an arrangement, originally for clarinet, cello and piano, of his Op 20 Septet, though the cello line largely derives from Op 20’s bassoon part, which allows Perkins to appropriate it in a performance that combines elegance with energy and some deliciously pointed detail. Glinka’s Trio pathétique dates from his years in Italy, meanwhile, and finds Watts and Perkins squaring off and duetting like protagonists from one of the bel canto operas that inspired it, while Roscoe accompanies them with understated subtlety. It’s an engaging disc, and very enjoyable.