Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Rosenkavalier Suite [24:42]
Ein Heldenleben [47:48]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, May and June 2009
ORFEO C803091A [72:30]

Like his other discs of the tone poems, this disc shows off both Andris Nelsons and the CBSO at their considerable best. The orchestra seem to have metamorphosed into an A-class Straussian team, and they assail this huge tone poem with gusto and energy that puts some German bands to shame. You hear that right from the very opening, as the strings attack the Hero’s theme with levels of energy that make the scalp prickle, and Nelsons shapes this in a rising tide of ebullience that seems about to go on and on and on. When the Adversaries enter their theme is nasty, sharp and biting, with the winds attacking the theme like insects that you’re trying to swat away. This then gives way to a knockout violin solo for the Companion, full of swoops and thrills but also showcasing a pleasingly flexible tempo, and the ensuing battle scene raises the temperature and levels of excitement to thrilling levels.
Great as is the playing, though, what impressed me every bit as much was the way Nelsons shapes the sound so as to give it even more colour than the notes on the page suggest. The orchestral violin line that follows the critics’ initial wind flourish, for example, sound quietly acidic, while a gorgeous laziness creeps into the end of the Companion scene, lending it a languorous beauty that brought a smile to my face. The final pages, too, seem to exude relaxed bounty as the hero willingly renounces the world, and Nelsons shapes a careful but important arc through the final swell that punctuates the work’s closing minutes. In short, he shows himself to be a great music architect, shaping this huge work’s great span with just the right levels of excitement and relaxation so that the impact is all the greater.
The Rosenkavalier suite is a great filler and it helps to show off the orchestra at its considerable best. Nelsons conducts with tremendous schwung in the final, uproarious waltz sequence, but he allows the whole thing to unfold with the correct sense of flow - though not even he can avoid the sequence sounding bitty. The strings are gorgeous in the presentation of the rose and in the final trio, but the finest sequence of all is the prelude, from its astonishingly colourful horns — eat your heart out, Dresden — to the gentle lilt of the love music that brings it to a close.
This disc, together with his Alpensinfonie and his earlier disc of tone poems, confirms Nelsons as one of the finest contemporary Straussians. Will a big German orchestra – or maybe even Berlin, the biggest of them all – beckon him some time soon, I wonder?
Simon Thompson
Masterwork Index: Ein Heldenleben


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