When I won 2nd prize in the German Radio Competition (ARD) in 1972 in Munich, I took part in the closing concert, performing the Concerto for Oboe and small orchestra by Richard Strauss, which the composer had written in the summer of 1945. The concert was broadcast live on the radio.
A few days after this concert, I received a letter from Ludwig Kusche, a Munich musicologist and friend of Richard Strauss. He praised my playing but wrote that: “the slow movement (Andante) was too slow”. Strauss had told him in a personal conversation: “It was my intention to write a Mozartian Andante and not an Adagio in the manner of Beethoven”.
As I see it, this statement is of far-reaching significance for the choice of tempo for the whole concerto and for the interpretation of the composition.
First of all, one must mention that as he got older, Richard Strauss increasingly saw Mozart as his great compositional example, in fact as his idol, even if he himself of course used a completely different musical language to Mozart, remaining a purely late-romantic composer in most of his oeuvre. For example, the late Symphony for 16 winds with the title “The Happy Workshop” is dedicated to “the spirit of the divine Mozart”. In an appendix about conducting which he added to his extensive revision of Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation, he also devotes himself to the interpretation of the works of Mozart and comes to a remarkable conclusion: With increasing experience of Mozart’s works, he repeatedly corrected his original ideas of tempo – and always towards faster tempi.
The Oboe Concerto can be seen as a whole as the reproduction of a classical concerto, written for the kind of orchestra that Mozart might have used, combining however elements of the baroque concerto grosso (where the flute, first clarinet and first bassoon form the Concertino with the soloist). With the size of the string section, Strauss describes exactly what he means by “small orchestra”: 8 first violins, 6 seconds, 4 violas, 4 cellos and 2 double basses.
But back to the slow movement of Strauss’s Oboe Concerto: a “Mozartian Andante” must surely be seen as flowing music with a pulse in quarter notes and not eighth notes. A metronome mark somewhere between 60 and 72 for the quarter note is probably appropriate for the tempo.
As Strauss wrote a very exact tempo relationship between the first movement (Allegro moderato) and the following Andante, that the Andante is to played at exactly half the speed of the first movement, this results in a metronome mark for the Allegro moderato quarter note of 120 -144. This is however too fast for the traditional idea of an “Allegro moderato” in quarter notes (Strauss composes in a 4/4 bar).
So where is the solution to this puzzle:
One must look into Strauss’s method of composition. A significant use of ornamental figures can be found in his works, particularly in the wind writing (eg in “Salome”, “Elektra”, “Don Juan”, “Till Eulenspiegel” etc.). And Strauss once said: “My instrumentation is always too nervous” – which can be taken to mean that his music contains a lot of ornamentation and coloratura, which should not be seen as individually audible notes, but just as color. During a rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic, Strauss, commenting on the many fast notes, is supposed to have said: “Gentlemen, in these passages, it is not the exact notes that count, the colors that the figures create are the most important thing for me”.
And that brings us back to the first movement of the Oboe Concerto and to the solution of the puzzle mentioned above:
The whole exposition of this movement consists of long notes and continuously returning sixteenth-note figures. If you take a tempo in accordance with the above metronome marks, then you very soon notice that although all those sixteenth notes are to be played exactly, they are, due to their speed, of purely ornamental and not melodic character and are not to be emphasized in detail, but should be seen – with a free internal rubato – as playful transformations of the surrounding long notes. If you leave out all these figures and only play the long notes connected to one another, then you immediately get a feeling for a very calm, floating tempo, an Allegro moderato not in four but in two. And then you recognize the meaning of the long slurs he wrote all the time, which of course don’t mean that you shouldn’t breathe between the individual phrases, but just depict the never- ending, calm flowing of the oboe melody, which in turn is accompanied by an unbelievably sensitive, transparent orchestral sound.
An important question anyway is how to breathe correctly in this concerto (or rather, in the first two movements): If, following the traditional concept of “Allegro moderato”, you choose a relatively slow speed, then you are always fighting against the length of the phrases and have to insert emergency breaths or use artificial circular breathing, which has the effect of destroying the phrases musically, as phrasing and breathing should create a whole in music. But if you take the solution of the faster (alla breve) tempo, then you realize that with relatively well-flowing breathing and good support, the long phrases are quite possible. It is hardly conceivable that Strauss would have written music that is unplayable for breathing reasons, when he was almost exclusively an opera composer and very familiar with the breathing of singers!
It is also interesting to read in the manuscript that at the most virtuosic moment of the first movement, the small concerto grosso between oboe, clarinet, bassoon and flute at figure 9, Strauss writes “do not hurry”. That wouldn’t even occur to you if you had played the previous Allegro moderato in slower quarter notes.
A few thoughts about the two-part 3rd and final movement: Undoubtedly, “Vivace” for Strauss means fast. The composition of this Vivace consists basically of two elements: the fast, virtuosic sixteenth figures, that don’t only occur in the oboe part, but equally in the orchestra, and the strongly contrasting elements of a wonderfully romantic cantilena played by horn and cello, elaborated by free triplet figures, which have the effect of calming the course of the music. The tempo of the final section in 6/8, marked Allegro, evolves logically when you retain the eighth-note pulse from the 3/4 Vivace as an eighth-note pulse for the 6/8 Allegro.
One small comment on the end of this movement: Strauss had finished the work in September 1945 and written a different ending to the one widely known today. In this first ending, there is no “Gemächlicher” (Meno mosso) at figure 57 and the piece ends a few bars later. In 1949, at the request of his publisher Boosey & Hawkes, Strauss reworked this ending to create a more brillant effect with the audience, inserting the slower tempo at figure 57 as a retarding element and, some bars later, writing a “Tempo primo”, which is misunderstood by many oboists as faster than the the basic tempo of the 6/8
Allegro. It is in fact a return to the 6/8 tempo – without doubt followed by an operatic Stretta.
One final note: the whole work is permeated by a main theme which appears in its original form particularly in the first and last movements, and from which the main theme of the 2nd movement is derived. This theme is found in almost identical form in the “Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings” written immediately before. And there, as in the Oboe Concerto, this theme has a distinctly “Alla breve” character, which brings us back to the “Mozartian Andante”.