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Strauss orchestral 4862040
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Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Orchestral Works
Yuja Wang (piano), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 2017-2021, Symphony Hall, Boston, USA; Gewandhaus, Leipzig, Germany
Reviewed as 24bit 96kHz FLAC download
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4862040 [7 CDs: 511]

It was sometimes said of Giuseppe Sinopoli that he helmed great orchestras and no one quite knew why. The question came with little kindness and a lot of bafflement. It is a view that I would apply to Andris Nelsons as well. But Sinopoli was a modest man and he was never the kind of conductor to collect orchestras; it was enough for Sinopoli to lavish his attention largely on just one. That isn’t the case with Nelsons. Does this actually matter? Well, in this almost nine-hour long Strauss odyssey Andris Nelsons does showcase his two exceptional orchestras – the Gewandhausorchester Lepizig and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – with somewhat mixed results. It’s sufficiently mixed to ask the question whether a single orchestra might have yielded a better set of Strauss’s orchestral works or if it would have mattered.

As far as things do go, the division of labour here is quite equal and I think Nelsons has been very considered – and pretty much on the mark – in deciding which of his two orchestras plays which Strauss work. One advantage of listening to this set as a digital download – which I did in the HDD format – is that the ninety-three tracks play without breaks between them. It can give you little time to come up for air and some might indeed feel they are drowning in this approach and prefer a standard CD format. The voluminous number of tracks is inflated by DG’s decision to break some works up into smaller intervals: Metamorphosen, almost always played as a single movement on disc, is here divided into three; Tod und Verklärung four and Till Eulenspiegel becomes five. Ein Heldenleben is a difficult work to edit and labels have taken different views on where those track points should be. Karajan’s EMI recording has more musical divisions than most performances on disc; DG didn’t decide to do that here, however, where it might have seemed logical to take the more detailed “break it up” approach. There is nothing particularly wrong with how DG have produced this Nelsons edition given that many of Strauss’s tone poems are designed to be treated this way; it will, however, perhaps be a pain for many listeners (skipping a work is no longer a single click when it once was, for example).

Nelsons is certainly fortunate to have two very fine orchestras here, even if one of them is better suited to Strauss than the other. That, of course, is the Leipzig orchestra. They really do sound wonderful and were one reason why I found it very difficult to pull back from listening to this set in a single sitting. When you hear strings of this quality – only the dark intense power of the Czech Philharmonic gets to me in the same way – the effect is entirely gripping. It’s been a very long time since I have heard ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ from Also sprach Zarathustra sound as tenebrous and sonorous as the one we have here (if only the famous opening had had the same impact). Listen to it and you would know it was the Leipzig strings – and this is what separates a great orchestra from a good one. Or, to put it another way a great Strauss orchestra from a good Strauss orchestra. Nelsons has probably done the Boston Symphony Orchestra no favours by making them stand beside the Gewandhausorchester in this particular composer.

The Leipzig recording of Macbeth is a very good example of this. One of Strauss’s lesser-known orchestral pieces – although heaven knows why because it’s a completely gripping work – it’s as psychologically compelling as Strauss’s two single act operas, Elektra and Salome. Works that all deal with the madness of a damaged and deranged female character in a way only Strauss could, Macbeth comes from a very different tonal world. The creeping atonality of those operas is instead replaced in Macbeth with something suffocatingly dark, choking on the kind of dark black scoring that suggests the mounting horror of a couple not just steeped in blood but positively awash with it. I’ve not heard a more thrilling account of the score than the one that Andris Nelsons gives us here – nor a better played one. It’s in a class of its own. A quick mention of the opening work on this Strauss box since we are on the subject of deranged women – Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. It’s delivered with considerable panache, although struggles to remain wild (as so many performances do). The Leipzig players are perhaps a tad on the weighty side put it really throws a massive punch.

This astonishing Macbeth sits between two Boston performances – Eine Alpensinfonie and Tod und Verklärung. Neither Boston recording is among the worst in this set; but neither are they the best. The playing is very good for Strauss’s mountain journey – although not a patch on the Bavarian Radio’s playing for Maris Jansons which is the summit all modern performances of this work now need to scale. Jansons was a peerless Strauss conductor, something he grew into over the decades he conducted the composer. He didn’t always have the ear for Strauss – one faultline in the Jansons Alpensinfonie, and it’s amplified in the Nelsons as well, is a failure to let us hear the layers of writing with brilliant clarity. Pages of harp writing in ‘At the Summit’ just disappear, for example. Neither conductor matches Sinopoli here, nor even Norman del Mar, Strauss’s biographer, who just happened to make a superb recording of the work with the BBCSO (some scrappy playing aside).

Tod und Verklärung is often a study in patience. The very greatest performances of this work (Karajan, Cantelli, Furtwängler, Sinopoli for example) have enormous reserves of concentration and focus. Karajan, abnormally sumptuous and uniquely powerful, even takes it to the extreme of sounding like another work of transfiguration written a decade later in 1899 – Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Nelsons is prosaic beside Karajan, the playing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra loose. Nelsons and the BSO lack the sheer velocity and searing intensity that Cantelli and the New York Philharmonic find in their performance, too. Furtwängler is probably the starkest of choices here, but his orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, is the closest to Boston in its softness if not its ability to scale the heights of grandeur. The most operatic of performances, the one that most recalls Tod und Verklärung’s Tristanesque sonorities, it is the one performance that most shines a light on the shortcomings of the Nelsons/Boston recording.

Only two of Strauss’s works which feature instrumental soloists – Don Quixote (with Yo-Yo Ma) and Burleske for Piano and Orchestra (with Yuja Wang) are in this set (the two horn, oboe and violin concertos are missing) and they are up against formidable competition. Burleske was written for Hans von Bülow who spent much of his life detesting the work, in large part because Strauss unaccountably ignored his small hand-span when writing the piano part so he couldn’t play it. Yuja Wang has no such problems with that here, nor with the Lisztian piano writing. Wang is one of the more sensitive virtuoso pianists around; nuances are rarely missed in her performances and often highlighted. In this sense I do find her more enjoyable in this work than Martha Argerich (with Abbado). Yo-Yo Ma previously recorded Don Quixote with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra back in 1984 when Ma was in his late twenties. There was much about it that was dashing – but it also caught Strauss’s shimmering writing, in this one of his most gloriously canvas-driven works. He now returns to the same orchestra, a much wiser, more noble Don, though lacking the extrovert thrill of his earlier knight. We have, I think, a bit of tussle going on this performance. Ma is very much on the page of the more worn, creased and more well-read Cervantes novel; for much of his performance of it, Nelsons seems to be working from a much newer book. This asymmetry isn’t so striking as to make the performance a bad one – in fact, it’s far from it. There’s a wealth of magic happening here, with Ma’s almost impressionist bowing creating pictures of superb individuality. Nelsons isn’t so distant from his soloist to allow his Sancho Panza (Steven Ansell) his own freedom. Nelsons is not, I think, a woodwind man – the bass clarinet is just bland. Of all Strauss’s works perhaps Don Quixote requires a conductor to truly be in love with it to get a great performance of it – this was certainly the case with Karajan. Nelsons is not quite there yet.

Metamorphosen, with the Leipzig strings, is an odd performance. it is one of the lightest sounding of performances I can remember, almost shallow in depth and range. There may be a number of reasons for this – the players were seated further apart from each other as was common during pandemic concerts (this comes from February 2021); the impression you could drive a bus through them was one thought which came to mind. Of course, Nelsons could well have wanted Metamorphosen to sound this way, too. There is, however, no catharsis here and certainly none of the Wagnerian direction that Furtwängler takes us to in its sound. Nor, really, does Nelsons come close to a more modern interpretation such as that by Paavo Järvi with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. With Järvi the NHK strings are extraordinarily deep; his cellos and basses are almost pulling themselves up from the rubble of a nation’s destruction so powerful is the bottom-up sound he gets from his players. It's rich, sonorous – closer to Beethoven’s Eroica than Nelsons dares to get.

Tempi are, at just over twenty-six minutes, on the slow side in Metamorphosen. Paavo Järvi has all that weight to hold him down through twenty-five minutes but it works; with Nelsons the feeling is deliberate, or like a great tethered zeppelin trying to get airborne. I think with Järvi we are getting into a projection of what Strauss’s music means; with Nelsons it's extremely vague if this happening at all. This one gets elsewhere in this cycle, sometimes to quite hapless effect. Take, for example, the Moderato molto sostenuto section (the duet) of the concert suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Normally the whole suite should run to no longer than twenty-two minutes; Nelsons takes a very long twenty-six. It would be entirely impossible for any soprano to sustain the tempo which Nelsons sets here, and his oboe and horn (as Rodzinski scored it) struggle a little too. This is some of Strauss’s most beautiful music but here it teeters on the edge of collapse. It’s not that Nelsons is apt to slow entire movements; rather, he bends out of shape phrases and bars to highlight an effect rarely in the score. In Eine Alpensinfonie his preference is to tighten the leash on his horns whilst loosening it on the rest of the orchestra. In Tod und Verklärung those long moments meander.

Ein Heldenleben has such an acute case of this it affects the work’s fluidity. ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ comes under considerable pressure – although Frank-Michael Erben’s solo violin tends to fight his corner with a virtuosity that goes beyond what is required, even under these trying circumstances. But neither he nor the Leipzigers can rescue ‘The Hero’s Battlefield’ from their wayward conductor. There is no sense of the percussion scything its way through the orchestra, of trumpets tearing their way through it. Of a terrifying momentum that leaves the memories of the voluptuous love scene from earlier strewn in the militaristic rubble. If you want visceral impact here you need to turn to other recordings – perhaps none finer (and still available) than Asahina’s unhinged full-on assault through this scene with an incandescent Osaka Philharmonic on blistering form. Nelsons coaxes from his players great beauty after this non-event – although the climax after the Im zeitmas marking is peculiarly underwhelming, also lacking any real ear for untethering the detailed inner scoring that is so gorgeously written here. Some might find the closing statement painfully slow.

This Strauss cycle was begun in 2017 and concluded in late 2021 with no performances recorded during 2020 for obvious reasons. The booklet doesn’t make clear whether the performances are live or studio – I suspect it might be a combination of both. The sound is generally very fine – although using a DAC with the 24bit-96kHz files may well have given me a slightly better impression of the orchestral textures than a non-DAC would have. Not all works best convey the complexity of Strauss’s scoring – notably Ein Heldenleben. I’m not sure the download will be markedly superior to the CD alternative. A 7-disc MQA is available on Universal Japan.

Large cycles are by no means a satisfactory way to acquire the works of any composer and with Richard Strauss even Rudolf Kempe’s cycle of his works is not a completist’s answer. Andris Nelsons has previously recorded the major tone poems with his former orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, for Orfeo. If memory serves me they have less acute tempo problems than these later performances – although this is a Nelsons trait so we must live with it. With the exception of Macbeth, which I hugely enjoyed, there is very little in this set which is recommendable and none which displaces a top choice. For the outlay one could well look elsewhere. Exton in Japan, for example, have just made available the remaining discs (Eine Alpensinfonie and Sinfonia Domestica) from Vladimir Ashkenazy’s superb cycle of the tone poems he made with the incomparable Czech Philharmonic. Strauss in a rather different league.

Marc Bridle

Contents

Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Salome, Op.54 Dance of the Seven Veils
Der Rosenkavalier – Konzertsuite
Fuersnot, Op.50
Don Juan, Op.20
Burleske
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Macbeth, Op.23
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Metamorphosen
Aus Italien, Op.16
Festiliches Präludium, Op.61/

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Vier sinfonische Zwischenspiele aus Intermezzo
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Schlagobers Suite
Don Quixote, Op.35
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Sinfonia Domestica, Op.53
Symphonische Fantasie aus Die Frau ohne Schatten
Festiliches Präludium, Op.61/


Published: October 6, 2022



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