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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

An interesting combination, if not a unique one. In 2012 I reviewed 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 effect’.

Zarathustra 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 Gustavo Dudamel’s 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 performance on Orfeo, a disc that was well received by John Quinn, Michael Cookson and Simon Thompson. There’s also a C Major 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 445 8602).

And now for Edward Gardner, who’s fast becoming the mainstay of the Chandos catalogue. I’ve reviewed some of his Bartók, Szymanowski and Janáček, 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 still splendid Glagolitic Mass. Then, as if to underline my point, his recent Gurre-Lieder 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 Leningrad.

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.

Dan Morgan

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