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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra [34:47]
Burleske [26:04]
Danil Trifonov (piano), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 10-13 October 2017, Herkulessaal, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900182 [60:51]

Alongside Mahler, Richard Strauss is perhaps the composer with whom I most readily associate Mariss Jansons’ name, so I was amazed to discover that, if my rudimentary Googling is anything to go by, this is his first recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra, a work he is famous for in the concert hall. (I heard him myself, in an unforgettable performance, with this orchestra, in the 2007 Edinburgh Festival.) His sad death at the end of 2019 also, therefore, makes this his only recording of it, so is it any good?

Yes, in short, but it’s not brilliant. It doesn’t get off to a great start, with a sunrise that feels rather rushed, but the cellos sound sweetly delightful in the major key section of the Backworldsmen’s music, and there’s delicacy aplenty, no more so than the in the Night Wanderer’s Song. The work’s all-important sense of drama is there, but it didn’t blow me away. The descent into the Joys and Sorrows section is interesting but not thrilling, for all that the trombones sound fantastic as that section gives way to the Song of the Grave. There is a wispy transparency to the string fugue in Of Science, and shimmering excitement throughout the Convalescent section. Furthermore, the Dance Song swings nicely, and the midnight bell sounds fantastic. On the whole, though, I wasn’t swept away. It’s perfectly fine, and was no doubt a great night in the concert hall, but this recording certainly hasn’t replaced classic performances from Reiner or Karajan, or Andris Nelsons’ Birmingham version, by far the best of recent digital versions (though I also really enjoyed the National Youth Orchestra’s).

The Burleske is another matter, however, and that’s partly because of the man at the keyboard. This work suits Danil Trifonov down to a T. Its quixotic, ebullient personality could have been tailor-made for him, and he gives a really super performance here. On the one hand its fireworks seem all-in-a-day’s-work to someone of his skill, while on the other his firm grip on the work seems designed to point up its structural integrity. At times it’s almost neoclassical in its shape and texture, but it never loses its emotional pull, and I found it completely convincing throughout. Jansons plays his part in that, of course, but I can’t help but wonder whether he was inspired to up his game by his partner.

So buy this for the Burleske. It might not have been a frequent item on Jansons’ concert programmes, but this disc is enough to make you regret that. I didn’t appreciate the intrusive applause at the end of Zarathustra, but otherwise the recorded sound is excellent throughout: my speakers made the floor shake during the climaxes of Zarathustra. I made sure my neighbours were out for the second hearing!

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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