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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1895-1896) [31:35]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) The Planets, Op. 32/H.125 (1914-1917) [48:01]
CBSO Youth Chorus
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Edward Gardner
rec. 8-9 August 2016, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 Studio Master from
Pdf booklet included
CHANDOS CHSA5179 SACD
An interesting combination, if not a unique one. In 2012 I
William Steinberg and the Boston Symphony in the exact same coupling; that
was a welcome reissue of their classic Deutsche Grammophon recording from
1970/71, sounding marvellous in its remastered form. At the time Universal
were offering the very expensive download via the Linn website, but I see
the album is now available on Qobuz at a much more reasonable price.
There’s still no booklet though, and that’s unacceptable at any price.
I cut my teeth on Herbert von Karajan’s first Zarathustra for DG –
it has more fire than his digital remake – the LP made all the more
tempting by its splendid cover image. Listening to it on CD many years
later I wasn’t quite so smitten – the sound isn’t as sumptuous as I
remembered it – but I have to admit Karajan had a compelling way with these
flamboyant scores. I have equally fond memories of his early digital Alpensinfonie; sonically that hasn’t worn too well either, but it
did sound spectacular when played through an early Walkman. Times and
tastes change, and I’m no longer in thrall to the once mesmeric ‘Karajan
isn’t the best of Strauss’s tone poems – that accolade surely belongs to
his Alpine adventure – which is probably why I don’t really seek out new
versions of the piece. Of two recordings from 2012
with the Berliner Philharmoniker was a terrible disappointment; it’s one of
those brash, self-promoting performances that fuels my love-hate
relationship with this conductor. I much preferred Andris Nelsons’ CBSO
a disc that was well received by John Quinn, Michael Cookson and Simon
Thompson. There’s also a
video from 2013/14, with Nelsons conducting the Concertgebouw in Zarathustra, Till and Macbeth.
Gardner and his young players also face stiff competition in the Holst.
Once again it’s the older generations, André Previn and Sir Adrian Boult,
for instance, that really stand out from the crowd (Warner). The last time
Chandos recorded The Planets was with
Sir Andrew Davis
and the BBC Philharmonic in 2010. I found it rather ordinary – prosaic,
even – which is surprising given that conductor’s long association with
British music. Then there’s John Eliot Gardiner’s stellar version with the
Philharmonia and Monteverdi voices. The coupling is an intoxicating account
of Percy Grainger’s ‘music to an imaginary ballet’, The Warriors (DG
And now for Edward Gardner, who’s fast becoming the mainstay of the Chandos
catalogue. I’ve reviewed some of his
and while there’s much to enjoy there the performances seem quite
variable. The notable exception is his choral Janáček, more for the rarely
heard fillers than the main work, a
Then, as if to underline my point, his recent
didn’t live up to its initial promise. But it wasn’t just the performance
that frustrated me, it was the odd balances as well.
And that, rather neatly, brings me to the organ in Zarathustra. In
his autobiography Putting the Record Straight Decca’s John Culshaw
remembers how difficult it was to patch in the instrument for Karajan’s VPO
account of the piece. At least the Chandos and Orfeo engineers didn’t have
to resort to such trickery in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where Nelsons’ and
Gardner’s recordings were made. In both cases that famous fanfare emerges
as if from a primordial mist, but for sheer oomph the latter’s is hard to beat.
And while Nelsons’ brass and timps are more thrilling he rather spoils the
effect by allowing this opener to persist beyond its natural peak.
The trouble with such a spectacular start is that it sets up expectations
which, in Gardner’s case at least, aren’t met. The NYOGB, an orchestra that
has given me great pleasure in concert, is rather distantly balanced; this
adds to the impression that they lack essential weight and amplitude. True,
Steinberg’s isn’t a ‘big’ sound, but it’s a full and proportionate one,
with convincing perspectives. More important, he brings out all the detail
and nuance that Gardner – and his recording – seem to miss. Indeed, the
latter’s performance actually sounds quite bland by comparison. Nelsons
falls somewhere in between, the Orfeo recording a great improvement on the
one they supplied for his lamentable
Steinberg and Nelsons also bring more surge and sweep in this music – in Der Genesende (The Convalescent) especially – and they build to that
big, organ-bolstered climax in a way that Gardner can’t quite match. Yes,
the latter sounds very impressive at this point, but once again that just
highlights the orchestra’s lack of body elsewhere. However, Gardner’s
softer, gentler approach does hint at the loveliness of a score that, in
the wrong hands, can seem downright vulgar. But in terms of elegance and
insight Steinberg and his pliant Bostonians are in a league of their own.
DG’s vivid, ear-pricking sound certainly helps.
Gardner falls short in other ways, too; for instance, his account of Das Tanzlied (Dancing Song) has little of the suppleness or echt-Viennese lilt that Steinberg and Nelsons find in this disarming
interlude. That said, Gardner’s bells in Nachtwandlerlied (Song of
the Night Wanderer) have tremendous impact, whereas Nelsons’ are all but
obliterated by an orchestral tsunami. As so often in this score it’s
Steinberg who looks beyond the big moments and celebrates the smaller,
finer ones. Indeed, there’s a transparency to his performance that’s
particularly effective at the very end; not only are those soft pizzicati sublimely done, there’s also a wonderful sense of quiet
summation that I don’t get from either of his rivals.
So, do Gardner and his doughty band do any better with The Planets?
Well, Mars is certainly menacing – far more so than it is under Sir
Andrew – the music taut and unflinching from start to climactic finish.
Also, there’s a staccatoed single-mindedness here that really cranks up the
tension. As for Gardner’s brass and drums, they take no prisoners. In fact,
this performance has all the heft and thrust I longed for in the Strauss;
in some ways it even feels like a different orchestra in a different hall,
such is the immediacy of this recording. After that comes Venus,
with some lovely woodwinds and quite subtle shading.
This is an encouraging start, the NYOGB clearly relishing Holst’s rhythms
and colour palette. Gardner’s Mercury flits with the best of them,
AND the music-making IS both articulate and animated. Jupiter
emerges with commendable energy and style; even those big, rather noble
tunes have all the warmth and breadth they need. The timps and cymbals,
well caught, are marvellous too. Any caveats? Well, Gardner does chivvy
things along from time to time, and there’s a rather clipped aspect to some
of his phrasing; no dawdlers or malingerers allowed here.
Moving on, Saturn is imbued with just enough strangeness, the gently
treading basses especially beguiling. That said, conductor and engineers
really turn up the wick halfway though, and that rather impedes the
narrative. I do wish they wouldn’t insist on these ‘hi-fi moments’, as they
did at the end of that Gurre-Lieder; I find them tedious and not a
little tacky. Also, I struggled to find an ideal listening level for this
recording, as indeed I did with the Schoenberg. Coaxing up the volume in
quieter passages – the barely audible choir in Neptune, for example
– only makes the louder ones seem overheated. Alas, Chandos aren’t alone in
this irksome practice.
On its own terms Gardner’s Planets is pretty decent; however, that
all changes when the Steinberg recording is brought into play. Suddenly we
are confronted with a whole range of once-hidden colours and nuances, all
packaged in a performance that’s naturally shaped and consistently paced.
Gardner certainly has the outlines, but not enough of the detail. Steinberg
makes one hear the music anew; even the overplayed Mars sounds fresh
and interesting, and each of these celestial wanderers gets a strong,
utterly distinctive spin. There’s also a dramatic intensity here that now
makes Gardner seem rather grey and generic by comparison. And yes,
Steinberg’s choir is perfectly audible.
Fair to middling performances, undermined by too many ‘hi-fi moments’;
Steinberg’s classic coupling remains unchallenged.