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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Schlagobers suite (1921-22) Op. 70 [42.12]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Jeux, Poème dansé (1912) [17.12]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Melodien, für Orchester (1971) [12.58]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Jonathan Nott
rec. 2018 Victoria Hall, Geneva
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186721 [72.35]

This is a welcome album of three fascinating orchestral works played by Geneva based Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR) and released in its centenary year 2018. Incidentally it was Ernest Ansermet who founded the OSR in 1918 serving as its principal conductor until 1967. Described on the press release as ‘A Twentieth-Century Tryptich’ (their spelling), this SACD contains three substantial works, separated by some sixty years, from Richard Strauss, Debussy and Ligeti, three influential composers who inhabit strikingly different sound worlds. Jonathan Nott is music and artistic director of OSR and this is his debut release for the Pentatone label.

In 1921-22 Richard Strauss wrote his ballet in two acts Schlagobers (Whipped Cream). In addition to the music, Strauss used his own scenario involving a group of children in a Konditorei or Viennese cake shop which comes to life, based on Demel the famous pastry shop and chocolaterie. One of the works he presented to the city of Vienna, to invigorate the fortunes of the Wiener Staatsoper, Schlagobers was premièred there under his baton in May 1924 during a Strauss Festival in honour of his sixtieth birthday. Despite the festive occasion, the extravagant ballet score was poorly received. Biographer Kurt Wilhelm wrote that the score is “full of delights… some of the happiest music Strauss wrote is to be found in Schlagobers”. Comprising a colourful roster of characters including Princess Praline, Prince Coffee, Princess Tea Flower, Prince Cocoa, Mademoiselle Marianne Chartreuse, Chocolate Chip Man and Gumball Lady the ballet isn’t staged very often. However, I noticed that in 2017 American Ballet Theater staged Whipped Cream in two acts at the Metropolitan Opera House with choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s reimagining of Schlagobers. If the production photos are anything to go by this was an unbelievably colourful staging by Ratmansky. Sometimes the Schlagoberswaltzer is played as a stand-alone piece but here Nott conducts the complete suite in eight sections, which Strauss prepared in the 1940s following some interest being shown in filming the ballet. Undeniably an agreeable, multi-coloured score, the Swiss orchestra enters into the light-hearted mood entirely, playing quite ravishingly for Nott with sincerity and boundless sparkle. It’s a warmly characterful performance as rich and flavoursome as a Sachertorte served with cream and the finest coffee.

Debussy’s final work for orchestra, Jeux, Poème dansé (Games, Dance poem) was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes with choreography by Nijinsky. In 1913 at Paris the work was introduced under Pierre Monteux, who was noted for introducing several works for Diaghilev’s company. The scenario is created around a boy, two girls, a tennis match with a lost ball and then more amorous games. Pierre Boulez described the score as a “Prélude à-l’Après-midi d’une Faune in sports clothes”. An influential and daring work, with Jeux Debussy eschews traditional harmony and form. Nott and his players revel in this score of profuse tempo changes, creating a range of vivid colours and quite glorious textures. With Jeux, Nott is echoing Ernest Ansermet’s classic Decca recording with the OSR made in 1958 also at Victoria Hall, Geneva. Both are outstanding performances but in future I’ll reach for this Nott account which is better recorded.
Ligeti completed Melodien, für orchester in 1971, and it was premièred the same year by Philharmonisches Orchester Nürnberg under Hans Gierster. As the title might suggest, with Melodien Ligeti displays a renewed attention to melody, yet characteristically this is music of considerable complexity and highly detailed, with constantly changing harmonies and rhythms of inexhaustible nuance. For me this keen emphasis on technical detail might be mitigated by Ligeti’s viewpoint that “I always imagine music visually, in many different colours”. Nott is well acquainted with the works of Ligeti having recorded five orchestral works (volume two) and the Requiem (volume four) conducting Berliner Philharmoniker in 2001/03 at Philharmonie Berlin as part of The Ligeti Project on Teldec. In this focused performance under Nott is the degree of tension produced together with plenty of body and atmosphere makes a strong impression. It left me ruminating over the range of moods it communicates which include delirium, expectation, awe, terror, isolation and foreboding. It’s hard to choose between this Nott recording of Melodien and the equally impressive account from the Schoenberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw recorded in 2000 at Hilversum, contained on volume one of The Ligeti Project on Teldec.

Overall Nott directs outstandingly, with noticeably well-judged tempos, drawing vividly characterised textures. Clearly relishing every note of these marvellous scores, OSR is in impressive form creating numerous magical episodes in performances which can bear comparison with the finest in the catalogue. Played on my standard player the sound team on this hybrid SACD recorded at Victoria Hall, Geneva achieves high quality sound which is relatively warm with satisfying clarity and balance.

A credit to all concerned, this is a beautifully performed and recorded album of captivating repertoire to which I will return often.

Michael Cookson

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