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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1895-1896) [32:53]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Totenfeier (1888) [22:49]
Sinfonisches Präludium für Orchester (1876, reconstructed by Albrecht Gürsching) [8:54]
Tobias Berndt (organ)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. 2016, Haus des Rundfunks, RBB Berlin
Reviewed as a stereo DSD64 download from NativeDSD
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186597 SACD [64:46]

This album is not Vladimir Jurowski’s first for this label, but it is his first with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin since he was chosen as their chief conductor. The appointment takes effect from the 2017-2018 season, so this recording celebrates both that and the start of a new partnership with Pentatone. Over the past decade, as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, Jurowski has been wowing South Bank concertgoers with his thoughtful, and sometimes controversial, concerts; as Colin Clarke’s Seen and Heard review suggests, the Russian’s Mahler Eighth, although excellent, was not without its foibles.

As it happens, I first encountered Jurowski in Mahler, a Medici DVD with the LPO that included the original version of Das klagende Lied. His audio recordings for the orchestra’s own label include a Resurrection that John Quinn described as ‘too wilful’; my own review was even less complimentary. And John was guarded in his review of Jurowski and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Totenfeier and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Signum). As for Richard Strauss, Jurowski and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe have recorded a video of Metamorphosen and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Euroarts); there’s also a Blu-ray/DVD of his Glyndebourne Ariadne auf Naxos (Opus Arte).

Strauss’s Nietzschean epic, Also Sprach Zarathustra, has fared well on record, but, as I pointed out in my recent review of Ed Gardner’s recording with the NYOGB, the old ‘uns are still the best ‘uns. For me, William Steinberg’s classic Boston account – which I reviewed as a remastered, high-res download – is the one to beat. In addition to music-making that’s fresh, vigorous and full of insight, the 1970s recording has a blend of detail, weight and sheer frisson that’s just remarkable; the coupling, Holst’s Planets, is equally impressive. That original Linn/Universal download (no longer available from Linn) was very expensive, but the Qobuz version is much more reasonably priced.

The spectacular sunrise at the start of Jurowski’s Zarathustra, underpinned by Tobias Berndt on the Seifert organ of St Matthias-Kirche, Berlin-Schöneberg, is certainly arresting; sensibly, the ad lib part isn’t allowed to linger, as it does in the Andris Nelsons/CBSO performance (Orfeo). The orchestral playing that follows is very lush indeed, a world away from the sinew and superhuman attack that characterise Karajan’s DG recordings. Then again, Jurowski’s overall approach is more expansive than most. Trouble is, he’s just too laid back, and that’s not ideal in a work that begs to be played for all it’s worth.

More injurious, though, is the inexplicable inertia of Jurowski’s reading; that, in turn, plays merry hell with character and coherence. Yes, Karajan can be very forceful in this music, but at least he knows how to shape and propel it towards that big central climax and beyond. Steinberg, less driven, is also formidable, the work’s architecture revealed in a way that few rivals can match. As for the Pentatone recording, it’s decent enough, but for some reason it sounds slightly ‘dead’ compared with the vitality, the ear-pricking immediacy, that makes Steinberg’s Zarathustra so very special.

So, a let-down – even more so than Jurowski’s Schnittke Third with the same forces, although that’s superbly recorded – but I hoped he’d redeem himself with the fillers; these are curiosities that will probably be of more interest to die-hard Mahlerians than to the casual listener. First up is Totenfeier, written in 1888 and subsequently reworked as the first movement of the composer’s Second Symphony. I last encountered the piece when I reviewed RCO Live’s double-anniversary box in 2013. Fabio Luisi, the conductor there, doesn’t have much of a track record in this repertoire, which should give Jurowski a head start here.

The scoring of Totenfeier is clumsy in parts and dramatic flourishes tend to misfire; that said, the music should be more compelling than it is here. Unfortunately, the playing lacks polish and Jurowski seems to be on autopilot much of the time. By contrast, the 24/48 eClassical download of his OAE performance boasts a more focused ensemble. Not only that, there’s a sense of idiom and purpose that I simply don’t hear in this Berlin remake. And while the Signum recording, made live at the Festival Hall, isn’t ideal, it appears to have more detail and impact. Ultimately, though, both readings are much the same, and neither stands out. If you really must have the piece, I’d suggest Karl Anton Rickenbacher on Erato or Pierre Boulez on DG, the latter coupled with Zarathustra.

The Symphonic Prelude, attributed to Mahler, is based on a short-score copy found in the Austrian National Library. Reconstructed by the composer Albrecht Gürsching, it was first performed by Lawrence Foster and this Berlin band in March 1981. But, as the liner notes point out, the original version was premiered by the Munich Philharmonic in 1949. To add to the confusion, the full score has since come to light, bearing the inscription ‘by Anton Bruckner’. Whatever its true provenance, I find the Symphonic Prelude tentative and, frankly, rather dull.

What a drab and inconclusive sign-off to an already dispiriting programme. However, this release raises wider concerns. Just a few weeks ago I reviewed a disappointing Mahler 2 with Daniele Gatti, his first recording with the Concertgebouw as their newly installed chief conductor. That, too, was supposed to be the launch pad for a prestigious new partnership. Worryingly, neither comes even close to lift-off.

Not Jurowski’s finest hour; look elsewhere.

Dan Morgan


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