Man-apes and monoliths
may not be what Nietzsche had in mind when he wrote Zarathustra,
but for many the title will always be synonymous with Stanley
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That famous opening
fanfare has appeared on countless compilations and the work
itself has had a number of excellent recordings over the past
fifty years or so. Notable among these are versions by Fritz
Reiner, whose ‘Living Stereo’ account has now been released
as an SACD, Rudolf Kempe, Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan
who recorded it once for Decca and twice for DG.
has always been a great demonstration disc – I remember Ozawa’s
Philips recording was among the first batch of CDs released
in 1983 – but in the right hands this is a marvellous piece
in it own right. Throw in stereo and multi-channel SACD and
two decent fillers – Don Juan and the suite from Der
Rosenkavalier – and this Exton offering looks very tempting
That’s the good
news. The bad news is that sonically and artistically this recording
is a let-down. At the very outset the glorious C major ‘sunrise’
sounds flat – in every sense of the word – and the great climax
comes across as muddled. Thinking there may be a problem with
my SACD player I tried the disc on a PC and on another stand-alone
machine and the result was essentially the same: strident treble,
unfocused bass and a curiously one-dimensional soundstage.
De Waart recorded
some decent Strauss in Minnesota but here his tempi are too
measured, even laboured, and the Dutch strings are either seriously
undernourished or the recording makes them sound that way. Just
listen to how Karajan and the Berliners phrase that marvellously
lyrical string passage in ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’, which Strauss
marks to be played ‘reverently’, and you will get some idea
of the mountain de Waart and his band have to climb.
isn’t the only way to play this music but at least he maintains
that essential intensity and thrust, especially when it comes
to the yearning motif in ‘Von der grossen Sehnsucht’. Later,
in ‘Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften’, the Dutch orchestra
remains stubbornly earthbound; the lack of front-to-back perspective
is most keenly felt here, with the timps suddenly sounding much
more upfront than before.
In ‘Das Grablied’
there is some lovely playing from the woodwind and lower strings.
Indeed, the quieter music comes off best, notably in the more
reflective ‘Von der Wissenschaft’. Here at last is some atmospheric
and characterful playing, although once again the balance seems
a little suspect - surely the harp at 2:46 is much too far forward?
In the more complex
fugal writing of ‘Der Genesende’ the sonic nasties return but
in mitigation the start of that strange waltz sounds promising.
The Dutch players don’t manage that echt-Viennese lilt
in ‘Das Tanzlied’ but that may have more to do with de Waart’s
awkward phrasing than the quality of the orchestra.
The music proceeds
without pause into ‘Das Nachwandler Lied’ and the tolling of
the midnight bell. It’s a wild and rather difficult moment to
pull off and regrettably it seems anti-climactic here. I really
missed that febrile quality that Karajan brings to the score
at this juncture; by comparison de Waart’s reading is doggedly
literal, the enigmatic close devoid of all magic or mystery.
The pause between
Zarathustra and Don Juan is far too brief – I
hardly had time to reach for the remote – but at least the music
starts with more gusto than I dared hope for. The performance
seems generally more buoyant and alert than before but the downside
is that we are back to that awful fatiguing sound. Could the
Hilversum studio be to blame, in part at least – there seems
to be very little reverberation or warmth – or is the recording
at fault? Perhaps it’s a combination of the two, but either
way it’s immensely frustrating.
Thankfully de Waart
finds a welcome degree of wistfulness in the work’s dreamier
episodes – Nikolaus Lenau’s 19th-century Don is something
of a philosopher – and some nobility, too. In terms of balance,
though, the harp seems to have receded somewhat but the drum
thwacks, crisp and powerful as they are, suddenly sound alarmingly
close. So, rather more successful than Zarathustra, but
really the rapier thrust of death can’t come too soon for this
Der Rosenkavalier, from which he arranged a suite – first
published in 1945 – is a lovely confection, crammed with delectable
tunes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ardent prelude.
In his classic disc of Rosenkavalier excerpts Silvio
Varviso whips the VPO horns into a frenzy – no doubts about
Octavian’s sexual prowess here – to exhilarating effect. Next
to the Viennese the Dutch horns don’t so much whoop as yelp.
Sad to say, that version is currently unavailable.
don’t get any better. Where Varviso is attuned to the music’s
ambiguous, bittersweet character de Waart struggles to find
any character at all, Viennese or otherwise. And anyone who
has heard Carlos Kleiber’s magical performance of the entire
opera (DG DVD 0730089) will know just how much fizz and sparkle
there is in this elegant score. Elegance is certainly not an
epithet that comes to mind here; de Waart just seems to push
too hard, robbing the music of all its inherent sophistication
and charm. Indeed, the coda is so overdriven that it sounds
less like Strauss and more like the demonic La Valse.
The composer’s self-deprecating
comment about being a first-rate composer of second-rate music
surely conceals another truth: that first-rate conductors and
orchestras are required to do them justice. Unfortunately the
Dutch band isn’t in that league and despite his Straussian credentials
de Waart doesn’t inspire them here. Couple this with a quirky
recording and you have a very disappointing disc indeed.