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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (1915) [44:48]
Salome, Op. 54, ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ (1903-1905) [9:34]
Die Frau ohne Schatten, Op. 65 – orchestral excerpts (1914-1918) [47:11]
Introduction, Earth Flight (Act 1 Scene 1) [2:41]
Finale Act 1 [13:22]
Falcon Scene (Act 2 Scene 2) [4:49]
Interlude (Act 2 Scenes 3 to 4) [4:57]
Scene in Front of the Temple (Act 3 Scenes 2 to 3) [5:00]
Scene in Front of the Emperor’s Statue (Act 3 Scene 3) [6:30]
The Couples Rejoice (Act 3 Scenes 3 to 4) [5:58]
Finale Act 3 [3:40]
Kristina Blaumane (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live, 2012 (Frau ohne Schatten), 2013 (Salome) & 2016 (Alpensinfonie), Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed as a 16-bit press download
Pdf booklet included

After a decade as chief conductor of the London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski has now taken up a similar position with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, effective from the 2017-2018 season. I’ve reviewed a recording he made with that German band, which, unusually, yokes Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra with Mahler’s Totenfeier and Sinfonisches Präludium (Pentatone). Alas, neither the programme nor the performances show the conductor at anywhere near his best. Then again, I was underwhelmed by the Russian’s erratic LPO Resurrection, and Simon Thompson was lukewarm about his Glyndebourne Ariadne (Opus Arte).

No, I’m not trying to jinx Jurowski’s new Strauss album. Indeed, the selection here, which includes the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ from Salome and orchestral snippets from Die Frau ohne Schatten, is far more attractive than the rather odd Berlin one. And, of course, it features the LPO, an orchestra very much at home in this richly upholstered repertoire. Their arch rivals, the LSO, are no slouches either, as their Alpine jaunt with Bernard Haitink so amply demonstrates (LSO Live). A Recording of the Month – and Year – that’s my benchmark here.

‘All else is gaslight,’ declared Herbert von Karajan at the dawn of digital. If that’s true, then his 1980 recording of Eine Alpensinfonie is a high-intensity carbon arc lamp. I first heard that Klieg-like performance on a chromium dioxide cassette, but the wow factor was soon dimmed by tape stretch and the wow on my early Walkman. Still, it was a formative experience, although I find the CD much too bright. Anecdotes aside, there are many fine versions of this piece, among them an intriguing video from Kent Nagano and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (Arthaus). Takashi Asahina’s hard-to-find Osaka recording, which I have as a rip, is well worth hearing, too.

Jurowski creates a dark, powerfully expectant swirl of sound in Nacht (Night), and that burst of Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) is dazzling. Adding to the atmosphere is the antiphonal brass – superbly pitched and caught – as the ascent begins. I did yearn for a bit more urgency at this point, although it soon becomes clear that Jurowski’s climbers, less driven, are allowed to stand and stare. This manifests itself in a wonderful sense of colour and incident, the upper strings so characterful in Auf blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows), and firm pizzicati from the lower ones. Moreover, the impressively deep, broad soundstage intensifies the ‘outdoors experience’.

In terms of what one might call ‘orchestral mechanics’, this is a normally aspirated performance, not a supercharged one, so the inner workings of Strauss’s finely tuned score are more readily discerned and appreciated. It’s all so artfully put together, and while Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) marks a literal/metaphysical peak, the ever-judicious Jurowski holds back from shallow triumphalism. Strauss and good taste may be an oxymoron to all those nay-sayers, but it’s in abundance here. Happily, that balance is achieved without sacrificing the rich, refulgent sound of a great orchestra in full spate.

The descent is no less eventful, its sudden challenges stoically met by explorers and musicians alike. The brass deserve special praise, as does a tellingly transparent recording that enables them to gleam and glow as they do. The discreet organ in Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun Gradually Darkens) is just perfect, the bass drum and timps predictably potent in the cloudburst that follows. Really, there’s no section of the orchestra that doesn’t excel here – splendid wind machine, by the way – while Jurowski’s Sonnenuntergang (Sunset) is intensely moving. An unforgettable moment in Karajan’s recording, this one almost trounces it.

My allegiance to Haitink’s lofty, far-sighted LSO version – a summit-attaining performance in so many respects – remains intact, but the more I listened to Jurowski’s honest, resolutely human traversal, the more I came to admire it. And having recalibrated my ears accordingly, I found his nicely nuanced ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, recorded in 2013, brimming with insight and interest. As with the main work, Jurowski allows us to ‘hear through’ Strauss’s score in a way that few rivals can match. True, there are more febrile accounts of this little shocker – Leonard Bernstein’s, on DG, leaps to mind – but then there’s so much else to revel in with this one. And restrained though he often is, Jurowski builds to a suitably abandoned climax.

As for the substantial excerpts from Die Frau ohne Schatten, recorded in 2012, they make a nice change from the oft-heard ‘symphonic fantasy’. There’s 47 minutes of vintage Strauss here, and the LPO, palpably psyched, deliver it with the unbridled power and passion it requires. From the gripping, darkly drenched introduction to Act 1, it’s clear Jurowski’s also at his dramatic best; indeed, with the help of formidable, unflinching sound – weighty, detailed and very sophisticated – he’s able to excavate all the craft and colour embedded in this masterly score.

The latter half of the Finale to Act 1 boasts some of the loveliest writing imaginable; fully comparable with that of the Four Last Songs, its magic is much heightened here by horn playing of an exalted order. I’ve long felt British orchestras have an unparalleled reputation in this field, and every luminous, long-breathed phrase simply reinforces that opinion. And if that sunset triggered a gentle flow of eye-offending brine, then this will surely release a flood. More important, if I harboured any doubts about Jurowski’s Straussian credentials, they’ve been well and truly banished.

Kristina Blaumane’s cello contribution in the Falcon scene is warmly eloquent, the brass and woodwind playing with a pliancy and line that’s hugely impressive. Jurowski’s phrasing and dynamic finesse are remarkable; also, he can really turn up the wick when he wants to, as he does in the voluptuous Interlude and the seat-pinning music of the scenes in front of the temple and at the emperor’s statue. What’s even more striking is that rare sense of music caught on the wing as it were, of watching a miraculous narrative unfolding on a lighted stage. The finale to Act 3 crowns what must have been an unforgettable evening on the South Bank, just a short train ride from where I live. Oh, how I wish I’d been there!

Full-fat Strauss, played, directed and recorded with aplomb; simply glorious.

Dan Morgan


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