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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896) [34:47]
Burleske, for piano and orchestra, AV 85 (1885/1886) [26:04]
Daniil Trifonov (piano)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 10-13 October 2017, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900182 [60:51]

Mariss Jansons, chief conductor of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, died a few weeks ago in December 2019 at the age of seventy-six. This new album containing Also Sprach Zarathustra and Burleske is one of two quickly released by the BR Klassik label to mark the death of this renowned conductor. Burleske is performed here by renowned Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, his first collaboration with the Bavarian orchestra.

Although the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks was only founded in 1949, its performing tradition is steeped in the music of Richard Strauss. The Munich-born composer is one of the city’s favourite sons. Only a few months ago at Herkulessaal I attended a concert by this very orchestra; Jansons conducted Strauss’s works, the Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo and a selection of orchestral lieder including Morgen! The pair of works on this album provide a fascinating contrast. The renowned orchestral showpiece Also sprach Zarathustra is coupled with the much lesser known Burleske for piano and orchestra.

Strauss composed Also sprach Zarathustra in 1896. He was inspired by the poetic imagery and chapter headings of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Strauss explained that the nine-section score is ‘intended as an homage to Nietzsche’, and its programme depicts ‘the relationship of nature and human will’. Standing out in this revered score is its famous opening passage, a depiction of sunrise which is undoubtedly one of the glories of classical music. In this account, the remarkable opening section is splendidly performed, yet the organ pedal does not quite attain the stunning impact of some of the more gloriously played accounts (notably Steinberg’s – see below).

The Sunrise section, although immediately striking and highly significant, is only a small part of the whole score. Overall Jansons delivers a beautifully moulded performance, with satisfying playing that demonstrates his renown as a Straussian. Showing their absolute affinity for the music, the Bavarian players are clearly relishing every second. A distinctive warm Straussian lyricism is evident throughout. Conspicuous here is the section The Convalescent, where Jansons generates an impressive climax of substantial power. Of special note are the concertmaster’s lovely violin solos, the radiant tone of the strings and the woodwind detail.
Also sprach Zarathustra is well served in the catalogue. For my taste, the established ‘classic’ versions by conductors steeped in the Austro/German tradition hold sway. My primary recommendation, for the remarkable exhilaration it generates, is the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Steinberg; it was recorded in 1971 at Symphony Hall in Boston on Deutsche Grammophon; the organ used by the Bostonians has a remarkable effect. I also value the splendid account by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, recorded in the RCA Red Seal Living Stereo series in 1954 at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. Two more striking accounts well worth obtaining: Karl Böhm with Berliner Philharmoniker in 1958 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, and Rudolf Kempe with the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1971 at Lukaskirche (both on EMI). Herbert von Karajan made two impressive recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker, in 1973 at Jesus-Christus-Kirche and in 1983 at Philharmonie (both on Deutsche Grammophon).

Strauss wrote his Burleske for piano and orchestra in 1885/1886 when he was the conductor of the Meininger Hofkapelle. Originally titled Scherzo in D minor, it was intended for soloist Hans von Bülow, who turned down the score. ‘Scherzo’ means ‘joke’; Strauss renamed the score Burleske but did not explain the title. It probably alludes to mockery or farce. The liner notes mention Strauss describing the work as a ‘piano concerto’ in a letter to his mother. Eugen d’Albert, the dedicatee, gave the delayed first performance under the twenty-one-year-old composer’s baton in 1890 at Eisenach, Thuringia. The same Eisenach concert included the première performance of Tod und Verklärung. From my experience, Burleske is a work not encountered too often on concerts programmes.

In this single-movement concert piece, a dazzling showpiece, soloist Daniil Trifonov is certainly not fazed by the daunting virtuosity required. Trifonov is a splendid guide through the emotional ups and downs in this predominantly high-spirited score. A sense of agitation is never far away, and the results are full of interest. Jansons is similarly adept with the orchestral accompaniment.

For recommended recordings of the Burleske, Trifonov’s account is up there with my first-choice recording played with verve and expression by soloist Malcolm Frager and the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe from 1975 at Lukaskirche (on EMI). I also admire Byron Janis with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner in the 1958 RCA Red Seal Living Stereo series (mentioned above; coupled with Also sprach Zarathustra and Der Rosenkavalier waltzes).

Both works were recorded live by Bayerischer Rundfunk at Herkulessaal, renowned for its acoustic. Audience applause has been retained at the conclusion of each work. The sound is to a high standard. The piano in Burleske is placed slightly forward, which is to my taste. Wolfgang Stähr’s booklet essay ‘A Musical Sunrise’ is a helpful and interesting read. In addition to Also sprach Zarathustra and Burleske, Jansons’s programme for this October 2017 set of concerts included Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. With some twenty minutes remaining, I am puzzled and rather disappointed why it was not put on the album. With these same forces, BR Klassik placed Till Eulenspiegel on a 2010 Strauss album containing the Four Last Songs and Rosenkavalier Suite. Its inclusion here would have added to the merits of this engaging new release.

Michael Cookson

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