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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op.30 [33:02]
Metamorphosen [25:44]
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 2016, Suntory Hall, Tokyo

Volume 3 in Paavo Järvi’s NHK/Strauss series couples Also Sprach Zarathustra and Metamorphosen, works at bookends of Strauss’s career. As with the two previous releases, the results aren’t of equal stature either – though in this case that really has much more to do with the quality of the recording RCA have given the orchestra than the quality of the playing, which is outstanding. Even listening to this recording on its SACD layer I was underwhelmed by the balance and sound perspective in Also Sprach. If any work in the Strauss discography demands first rate sound it is this one and it simply doesn’t get it here.

The NHK Symphony Orchestra are certainly not unfamiliar with Strauss’s Op.30 having given live recordings in 1968 (under Joseph Keilberth) and in 1987 (under Wolfgang Sawallisch) that have both been issued on King in Japan. They have played the work as frequently as they have Ein Heldenleben, under many great Strauss conductors. Järvi’s performance is often glorious, certainly opulent, and distinguished by noble and refined playing - even if it opens very slowly for my tastes. Toshiyuki Kamioka, in a recording with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra issued on Exton in 2017, is 30 seconds faster than Järvi in the Enleitung, entirely gripping in a quite different way; Karajan and the Wiener Philharmoniker, at Salzburg in 1964, on Orfeo, seem to get the tempo just right, as they do almost everything else in this work. You really notice the problem with the recording in Von der Wissenschaft. The NHK strings, especially at the bottom, are not underpowered, but RCA’s microphones are missing in action. The fugue on the basses and cellos sounds much less prominent than I would wish to hear it, and I really want to hear the contra B from the double basses which I don’t in RCA’s murky recording. Contrast this with Exton’s state of the art recording – or even the Karajan from 1964 – and you get a hint of what is missing.

That is not to say there aren’t some magical moments here. Listen from 1:05 from Von der Hinterweltlem – which in its own way prefigures Metamorphosen – and the string playing is incredibly refined, with a beauty that almost transcends description. Those basses in the same movement at 3:05 are just so typical of this magnificent orchestra. The brass, so often the Achilles heel of Japanese orchestras (listen to the Keilberth recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra, for example), are technically brilliant, polished and remarkably attuned to dynamics.

The NHK Symphony and Järvi do give a performance of Strauss’s Metamorphosen that is little short of astonishing, however, and the recording engineers are much more successful at capturing this great orchestra’s strings on simply incendiary form. The orchestra first played the work in November 1967, under Lovro von Matáčic, and since then have performed it only a handful of times – under Sawallisch (1986), Ashkenazy (2011) and with Järvi (2016). Technically, Metamorphosen weaves four main themes through polyphony and counterpoint and it is this organic construction that belies its complexity. The work is neither chamber music nor strictly symphonic – yet relies on both to achieve its end result. Performances of Metamorphosen can struggle to make headway because conductors often take the emotional, intense approach but forget about the music (Barbirolli) or they confuse intensity with a tempo that results in the textures of the work fragmenting (Blomstedt, and many others). Järvi, like Furtwängler and the Berliner Philharmoniker in October 1947 (the last time Furtwângler would ever perform the piece) succeeds in bringing profound emotion to the work, at a very fluid tempo. What both these recordings share is a miraculous sense of balance, great surges of sound (the symphonic) that shatter like the masonry of the cities Strauss eulogizes in his music, instruments that weep in their mourning (the chamber) throughout bars and bars of the music. What the Järvi does share with Barbirolli’s recording, however, is a belief in the weight and sonority of the strings – yet where Barbirolli makes this sound monochromatic, Järvi makes each of the four sections of the work sound distinct. If Barbirolli is at the same, unforced volume Järvi and the NHK strings adjust their balance so you have a true sense of the counterpoint Strauss was aiming for. Järvi’s Metamorphosen is like Tristan to Furtwângler’s recording in its clear debt to Wagner as Verdi’s Otello is to Barbirolli’s.

It’s entirely possible one could listen to the NHK strings on this recording and question whether Strauss’s orchestration of ten violins, five violas, five cellos and three basses is truly being heard so sonorous and ravishing is the playing. The depth of tone is quite something – but Järvi has a tendency to make the climaxes in the score transcendental and as intense as possible, ratcheting up the drama as vividly as he can. Yet, the sense of scale is marvellous. The great explosions that resonate from sections of Beethoven’s Eroica are palpably in balance with the decrescendos elsewhere. It’s a recording that lavishly demonstrates the harmony that coexists between the chamber-like and the symphonic; in that sense, it has the absolute structural coherence and balance of Klemperer’s New Philharmonia account.

Järvi himself writes of “reverence” when talking of performing Metamorphosen before these 2016 concerts and that sense of nostalgia and grieving for something lost comes through this performance very vividly. The greatest performances of this work – by Furtwängler, Sinopoli and Klemperer – are ones that see the music through the prism of the rubble and destruction from which it was composed. Järvi and the NHK string players surmount the technical obstacles to achieve an emotional punch that puts their recording among the greats. I only wish Also Sprach Zarathustra could have achieved the same.

Marc Bridle



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