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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Symphonia domestica op. 53 (1903) [44:19]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade op. 35 (1888) [45:23]
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Zubin Mehta
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 26 January 1988 (Strauss), 9 April 1992 (Rimsky-Korsakov)
LPO LIVE LPO-0117 [44:19 + 45:23]

Zubin Mehta’s performances of Strauss’s Symphonia domestica have been much admired over the years. Back in 2009, for instance, my colleague Simon Thompson considered one recorded in 1968 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to be the undoubted highlight of a Decca Eloquence two-disc set (review). A subsequent 1985 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra may not exhibit quite the same impulsive youthful dash as that earlier version, but many will consider the Berlin players’ refined execution to be more than adequate compensation (Sony Classical 88985328992). Now, however, comes this new account. Exhumed, it appears, from the archives of the BBC, it memorialises a live concert performance that Mehta and the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave in 1988. To my ears at least, it surpasses both those other recordings.

In performing a score of such complexity as Symphonia domestica, it goes without saying that the quality of the orchestral contribution needs to be top class. Thankfully, the London Philharmonic was in excellent form in the late 1980s, largely thanks to the work of successive principal conductors Bernard Haitink (1967-1979), Georg Solti (1979-1983) and Klaus Tennstedt (1983-1987). They were all not only experienced orchestra builders but, significantly, masters of the big, late Romantic score. In consequence, all the technical challenges posed by Strauss’s orchestral behemoth are met head on and with marked success in this Mehta 1988 performance.

The importance of good recorded sound to any account of a Strauss blockbuster is also self-evident. In too many inadequately-engineered recordings we are simply, to turn a familiar phrase on its head, unable to see the trees for the wood; the felicitous detail of individual instruments’ roles in the creation of a harmonious whole goes unregistered and unappreciated. But the members of the original BBC sound engineering team of 1988 – regrettably unnamed – were clearly very skilled. They overcame the Royal Festival Hall’s notorious sonic deficiencies to produce a quite outstanding recording that allows us to appreciate to the full Mehta’s highly accomplished reading and presentation of the score.

In an account characterised by a finely honed orchestral balance and a keen appreciation of dynamics, that transparent sound uncovers unexpected and often unappreciated detail in even the most congested passages, as clearly demonstrated in track 2 at 2:08-3:00 or 4:59-6:38, track 4 at 0:00-2:30 or 6:00-8:06, or the finale at 2:28-3:44 or 10:15-11:22. While the LPO’s richly upholstered strings are given the lead in driving the performance energetically forward, the woodwind section seizes every one of its many opportunities to add colour at episodes both plaintive (track 3, 3:09-4:16) and positively jaunty (track 2, 0:00-1:19). There are strong contributions, too, from the incisive brass, and I loved the characteristically whooping horns in the finale. Meanwhile, the percussion makes its contribution felt; for once, tambourine and triangle are clearly heard as they add a top layer of icing to the orchestral cake.

As already observed, this account is characterised by a marked degree of drive and energy. Comparison with Mehta’s studio recording of little more than two years earlier with the Berlin Philharmonic allows one to imagine that perhaps, at least until the finale, he was increasingly swept along by the occasion of performing in front of a live (and, by the end, very enthusiastic) audience. Thus, while the first track is performed in London in 5:20 – a time identical to that of the Berlin recording – the second comes in at 6:38 which is 10 seconds quicker than in Germany. At 5:37, track 3 is another sprightly reading, cutting 29 seconds off the Berlin recording’s time, while, at 11:53 and a whole 59 seconds quicker, the fourth track certainly maintains the gathering momentum. Only in the finale, delivered here in a notably finely sculpted account, is the London time of 14:30 restored to near parity with the Berlin recording (14:43). In such a lively performance of Symphonia domestica, it is the more driven individual passages that work most effectively, though contemplative episodes in the Strauss family’s life are also delivered with affection. My sole reservation is that the LPO’s leader at the time David Nolan does not make a little more of his solos which depict the composer’s wife Pauline. They emerge here (for instance, on track 5, 4:10-4:31) as somewhat self-effacing and a little characterless, which are hardly descriptions you would normally think of applying to that redoubtable battle-axe Frau Strauss.

By the way, mention of the frequently abrasive Pauline reminds me that she would surely have had very little patience with the Royal Festival Hall midwinter cougher who unsuccessfully tries to control himself between 4:09 and 4:30 before, presumably, sucking effectively on a eucalyptus sweet for the rest of the performance.

We have to dig deeply into the MusicWeb archives to find a full review of a Mehta performance of Scheherazade on disc. In 2002, John Portwood was clearly very far from impressed with what he heard (review). As well as judging the 1975-vintage Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra seriously deficient in comparison to alternative London, Berlin and Amsterdam accounts, he also pointed out what he identified as some questionable sonic engineering. Moreover, he took issue with Mehta’s interpretation of the piece, remarking that the conductor “pulls the music around so much… takes speeds at the extremes of those indicated and in comparison with other interpreters is very wayward… In the final movement, the Festival at Baghdad, Mehta… sounds rushed and untidy… There are some lush moments… but these are lingered upon in such a way as to make them over-sugared.” I see that another MusicWeb colleague, Stephen Francis Vasta, in an aside while reviewing another disc, was also pretty dismissive of that recording as he refers to Mehta’s “exaggeratedly drawn out” tempo in the opening movement (review). [Unfortunately, MusicWeb appears never to have reviewed – and I have not heard – the 1989 recording of Scheherazade that Mehta made with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.]

If neither John nor Stephen could summon up much in the way of enthusiasm for the 1975 studio recording, perhaps matters will look up with this newly released account of a live performance with the London Philharmonic, recorded just a little more than four years after the Strauss performance. Its venue was once more the Royal Festival Hall. Thankfully, a BBC engineering team was again on hand to preserve the concert for posterity – but, whereas the 1988 Strauss recording had been an analogue one, by 1992 digital technology was in use. Early digital recordings can be something of a controversial issue. While everyone at the time had been encouraged by clever marketing to expect dramatic improvements in sound quality, many listeners were ultimately unhappy with what they considered a harsh and “glassy” sound that lacked warmth or a hard-to-define “atmosphere”. There certainly is a marked difference in the sound quality between Strauss/1988 and Rimsky-Korsakov/1992. The former is dryer and more analytical, whereas the latter exhibits substantially more in the way of reverberation – which some listeners will no doubt enjoy as very well suited to Rimsky-Korsakov’s passages of grandly colourful impressionistic. The brass and percussion make particular impact in this recording, as, indeed, does the guest solo violinist Henrik Hochschild, who moonlighted from the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and portrayed our silkily seductive heroine with style and panache.

What, however, of Mehta’s interpretation this time around? I’m afraid that, echoing Stephen’s complaint about wayward tempi, the first movement, The sea and Sinbad’s ship, is something of a disappointment. In this performance we are presented with a very stately ship indeed. In the distinct absence of the level of momentum and drive given it by many other conductors, as early on as 3:43-4:25 there is a danger of this particular vessel becoming quite becalmed. The sails are only fully unfurled, one feels, at the great orchestral climax at 5:31 but, even thereafter, one senses that this vessel will not be winning any trans-oceanic races. While it is fun to play around with such nautical allusions, the undeniable fact is that such a slow and deliberate account does not engage the listener as effectively as it might: we feel that we are watching the ship objectively through a telescope from afar, rather than sharing in the subjective excitement of sailing with dashing Captain Sinbad on his latest adventure and getting doused by the occasional strong wave that crashes over the prow.

In similar fashion, consider the passage in the second movement (5:42-7:06) which always sounds to me as if it depicts galloping horses (and, in the absence of any guidance from the composer as to what The Kalandar prince’s tale is actually about, that is surely as good as interpretation as any other). Here it lacks the sheer drive and visceral excitement given them in the very finest accounts (review). There is a certain element of jarring inconsistency, too, when a subsequent passage of stolid, emphatic plodding-along (8:52-9:06) is followed shortly thereafter by one characterised by a marvellously transparent, featherlight delicacy (9:39-11:16).

Although, as John observed in his review, Mehta devoted an excessive 12:04 to his 1975 studio recording of the third movement, The young prince and princess, his timing in the live performance under consideration is a more conventional – though still slow – 10:47. I thought this a very enjoyably delivered account, significantly enhanced by the LPO’s fine woodwind soloists and generating a much more convincingly authentic atmosphere of romance. If anything, however, the finale is even better. While his interpretation, this time, is much more conventional, Mehta deploys the London Philharmonic’s brass and percussion, flattered by the resonant acoustic, in heavyweight fashion and creates an immense, unstoppable juggernaut of sound. The climax (7:34-9:05) is effectively achieved, and Henrik Hochschild’s lyrical farewell brings the movement beautifully to a close.

Once again, by the way – and perhaps even more so than in the Symphonia domestica – you will need to allow for the vagaries of a live performance. While this Scheherazade was not, unlike the Strauss, a midwinter recording, there are still a few coughers in the audience who have inadvertently immortalised their presence for posterity (the culprit heard at 1:16 in the finale may be the very same one who unleashes a dreadful atmosphere-shattering harrumph just as the final note of the whole piece is dying away).

This attractively priced two-CD set is, then, something of a mixed bag. The Scheherazade is simply too idiosyncratic and wilful in a highly competitive field, and it is not one that I will be choosing to listen to on a regular basis. Strauss fans, on the other hand, are not quite so spoiled for choice when it comes to the Sinfonia domestica and, if it appeals, could do far worse than acquaint themselves with Mehta’s impressively conceived and delivered performance.

Rob Maynard

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