Even as his numerical and technical demands increased with each succeeding work, Strauss maintained a wide variety of expressive dynamic: from full, heaven storming orchestral forces to moments of quiet intimacy. One of the many reasons Elektra must have appealed to the composer was the opportunity for just such contrasts in scale.
A prime example is the middle of Elektra’s attempt to persuade her sister to be her accomplice in the murder of their mother and her lover. With the announcement of their brother’s alleged death, Elektra plunges straight away into pivoting to take on the long awaited revenge herself in a hushed yet feverish passage punctuated by occasional full force thunderbolts, and then to a full blown heroic section as she tries to convince Chrysothemis of her capability in sharing in the murders.
Instead, Chrysothemis begs her sister to flee, so Elektra shifts tactics, gently painting dreams of the rewards the murders will bring her: freedom, and most importantly the physical affection Chrysothemis is so desperate for.
Here Strauss pulls back to a small group of solo strings, still reflecting Elektra’s seething thoughts by their rhythmic complexity. The occasional underpinning from the rest of the sections reminds us of the volcanic determination hidden behind this supposed sisterly warmth. This little “aria” builds in intensity - Strauss here uses almost verbatim a burgeoning number of string lines straight from the “Von der Hinterwelten” section of his Also Sprach Zarathustra - until Chrysothemis’ protest pulls the full orchestra back in to play. It’s a fascinating piece of psychology by orchestration, and one that works just as well (I think) with 21 strings as with 86.
Here it is: