Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1895-96) [33:01]
Macbeth, Op. 23 (1886-8) [20:44]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 (1894-95) [16:12]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, 2013/14
C MAJOR Blu-ray 719004 [80:00]
Andris Nelsons made his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2008 and has since been a regular guest in Amsterdam. I encountered the partnership on a magnificent disc recorded at the Lucerne Festival which included a memorable account of the Shostakovich Eighth Symphony (review). Nelsons has just taken up the Musical Directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra but I’ve wondered more than once if he might instead have taken the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw had his mentor, Mariss Jansons, announced a little earlier his forthcoming retirement as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. Given that Nelsons is still only 36 years old I wouldn’t bet against him taking over the leadership of this great orchestra at some time in the future since this set of Strauss recordings confirms that they make an impressive partnership.

Andris Nelsons has already given us excellent audio recordings of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Till Eulenspiegel as part of his series of Strauss symphonic poems for Orfeo with the CBSO (review). Now that he’s to leave Birmingham at the end of the 2014/15 season to concentrate on the Boston Symphony Orchestra I don’t know if any further Strauss recordings from Nelsons and the CBSO will be forthcoming. These live performances from Amsterdam postdate in both cases his Birmingham recordings.

The first performance on the programme is a Christmas Day account of Also Sprach Zarathustra. I don’t always find this the most appealing of Strauss’s tone poems but, my goodness, Nelsons and the RCO impressed me. The famous opening is imposing and a few minutes later I was delighted by the ravishing sounds of the front desk string players at the start of ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’. The ardent, surging playing in ‘Von der großen Sehnsucht’ makes a terrific impression. ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ is splendidly done: the slow quiet fugue begins mysteriously on the lower strings and as other instruments join in and the textures and tension build there’s fine control both by the players and from the podium. Nelsons builds ‘Der Genesende’ excitingly to the tutti reprise of the Nature theme. ‘Das Tanzlied’ is very nicely inflected; hereabouts Nelsons grins widely and I’m not surprised, such is the delicacy of the orchestra’s playing, the rhythms very well sprung. The ending is sensitively done with all the nuances of Strauss’s writing imaginatively brought out. This is a very fine account indeed of Also Sprach.

Macbeth is the earliest work on the programme. It’s a fairly rare visitor to concert halls nowadays though it hasn’t fared badly on disc – there are eight other recordings listed in our Masterworks Index. It’s not one of Strauss’s best tone poems but Nelsons makes a very strong case for it in this performance. He conducts it with gusto and evident belief and once again the playing of the RCO is marvellous. It’s a dramatic reading but even so none of the ideas lodged in my memory and that, I suggest, underlines the relative weakness of the piece. Still, it’s good to find this excellent Strauss conductor exploring one of the composer’s less familiar pieces and doing it with such conviction.

We’re on much more familiar and, dare I say, stronger ground with Till Eulenspiegel. Nelsons is in his element here. The opening couple of minutes are dashing yet a great attention to detail is in evidence also. The performance is brilliant with wit and finesse in abundance. The orchestra collectively is on imperious form – the woodwind playing is a special delight - and there’s some marvellous solo playing to admire. Here I must single out – as Nelsons does at the end – the leader, the principal horn and the E-flat clarinet player, all of whom take their solo opportunities with relish and no little character. This colourful, vivid performance is so good that, despite the very fine renditions of the other two pieces, one feels the best has been saved till last. Nelsons conducts with tremendous flair and evident enjoyment; it must be very satisfying and exciting to conduct one of the best orchestras in the world in this flamboyant virtuoso showpiece.

So, here are three distinguished and exciting Strauss performances by an orchestra that has the music in their blood under the direction of a man who is fast establishing a reputation as a leading interpreter of this composer’s music. The presentation is worthy of the playing: the camera-work is first rate, as is the sound.

John Quinn

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