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Contributing to this summer of Strauss, completing half a century since the Bavarian composer's death, are releases of his two earliest operas barely heard in this country nowadays.

STRAUSS Guntram (Arte Nova) : No, this is not Lohengrin (though its opening might fool you), but a similarly Wagnerian tale of chivalry and renunciation (Tannhauser and even Meistersinger add seasoning to the pot).

Strauss' first opera, Guntram is the work most quoted by the composer in his self-justifying Ein Heldenleben, and is in fact written with extraordinary assurance.

On two CDs bearing 100 minutes-worth of music (the cut three-act version), this performance is assembled from live presentations given in June 1998 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the alpine town where Strauss died on September 8, 1949. Willingness and generosity are more in evidence here than singing of the most consummate control, though Canadian Heldentenor Alan Woodrow (well-known to British audiences) copes remarkably well with Guntram's difficult writing.

Gustav Kuhn, also director of the staging, conducts the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana with sensitivity and sweep. The insert-booklet gives the German libretto without translation and could be more helpful in its track listing. HHHH

STRAUSS Feuersnot (ARTS): Described as a "Poem for singing in one act", Feuersnot ("Fire Famine"), Strauss' second opera, is a very different can of beans: a domestic comedy (again shades of Meistersinger as another bit of midsummer madness), with plenty of local colour and even a children's chorus (here the excellent Tolzer Knabenchor).

The tale is one of a taunted sorcerer whose spell puts out all the fires in Munich, refusing to lift the curse until the local beauty succumbs to his love - which she willingly does in a glorious concluding love-scene (offstage, its climax coinciding with the re-ignition of all the fires - sexual symbolism comparable with Rosenkavalier, and perhaps a disturbing subconscious gloss on the magic fires with which Wagner's Wotan surrounds his sleeping daughter Brunnhilde!).

This remastered 1985 recording scarcely fills two CDs, and again the insert-book could be more helpful, but the music is certainly worth getting to know as a precursor of the mature Strauss' almost conversational operatic style. The excellent Julia Varady and Bernd Weikl head the cast, and Heinz Fricke conducts the Munich Radio Orchestra. Great fun. HHHH

Christopher Morley

TOMMY SMITH Gymnopedie: The Classical Side of... (Linn): The whizkid jazz saxophonist from Scotland has always had more serious tendencies with his compositions, and spent some time in France soaking up the classical traditions there.

Now they emerge in a disc which pairs him with classical pianist Murray McLachlan. Erik Satie features, along with Bartok, Grieg and the children's songs of Chick Corea. These more familiar pieces are used as the sweeteners to prepare us for Smith's own sonatas for saxophone and piano, which constitute by far the more interesting music on the disc.

I'm not sure I want to hear Gymnopedie played on yet another unusual instrument, even if Smith's saxophone is so unbelievably creamy in tone. The genre-hopping Smith

originals are another thing entirely, melding formal written music with a pliancy and spring that could only come from a jazz player. HHH

Peter Bacon
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 7, 1999
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