Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 [31:50]
Don Juan, Op. 20 [18:01]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 [15:28]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
rec. 10, 12, 14 January 2012 (Zarathustra); 27-29 September 2011 (Don Juan); 22-24 January 2013 (Till Eulenspiegel), Symphony Hall, Birmingham
ORFEO C878141A [65:43]

This, the third instalment in Nelsons’ Strauss series (review), gives his three most popular orchestral works, and it is perhaps by design that Orfeo waited to release these three in the composer’s anniversary year. I found the disc sensational: brilliant playing, stunning recorded sound and tremendously exciting conducting.
The opening of Zarathustra is absolutely thrilling, not just due to the clarity of the sound and the brightness of the playing, but because Nelsons takes just that little bit longer over each aspect of the music, a fraction longer than you expect, which leaves the listener absolutely primed and ready for the next moment: I found myself almost panting for the climaxes when they arrived; delayed gratification is all the more eagerly sought. The Orfeo producers have done a brilliant job at capturing the sound of the entire orchestra at full pelt, but their achievement is every bit as great when, a few moments later, the violas enter with the "great longing" theme, simultaneously ardent and self-restrained. The organ is marvellously evident in the subsequent transition into the "joys and passions" section, as is the hurly-burly of the strings, and that section ends in a subterranean plunge that put me in mind of Jochanaan's cistern, as do the basses when they launch the fugue in "of science". The solo writing in the "funeral song" sounds great, and there is something wonderfully flighty, almost camp about the Dance Song which struck me as entirely in keeping with the composer’s take on Nietzsche, made all the more effective by the rest of the orchestra sparring brilliantly against the solo violin. The midnight bell, when it comes, is so thunderous as to sound apocalyptic, and it gives way to a beautiful, iridescent image of the Night Wanderer's song in which, like his opening, Nelsons holds on lovingly to various details, making the listener almost agog for the next thing to come.
The opening rush of Don Juan has all the sparkle and the flood of testosterone that you might expect, dissolving into a string theme that is radiant with extrovert ambition. This is a reading full of passion and drive. Nelsons refuses to linger where some others do but keeps the adrenaline rushing throughout. That's not to say that this is always achieved through pacing; it isn't. While his speeds are on the rapid side, he isn't afraid to slow up when necessary, such as in the second love theme — listen to that solo oboe. Throughout his reading, though, Nelsons injects an incredible sense of energy and passion into the music, so that it feels as though it is being ceaselessly propelled forward. The horn theme at the climax is stunning, leading into a frenzy of energy, and even the death scene the subtle violin figurations have a flickering, busy feel to them. That energy is entirely in keeping with the character of the titular hero, and I think it's something with which the composer would be pleased.
Till, too, has a sense of forward movement, but here it is less unstoppable ardour and more an amiable stroll in good company. The clarinets have a great time enunciating Till's "wicked goblin" theme, and in some of the jokey narrative sections the orchestra sound as though they have been thoroughly let off the leash. This is the kind of anarchy that only comes through careful control and is testimony to Nelsons' relationship with the orchestra, as well as to the way he has trained them. Every detail is brilliantly observed, down to the cheeky slurs from the trumpets on the final chords. I was also really impressed with how clearly audible everything was at the climax, including the staccato trumpets and the chattering flutes, which serves as an encomium to the good work of the Orfeo engineers.
This disc has already taken its place on my shelf alongside Karajan’s and Reiner’s landmark recordings from the 1950s, and is every bit as worthy to look them in the face. Not only is it a tribute to the composer, but it is evidence of what a crack team this orchestra has become under Nelsons. They will miss him when he goes.
Simon Thompson

And another review ...

I doubt any lover of serious music can have failed to have noticed that 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss. I thought that orchestras and opera houses would be keen to programme the music of Strauss in his anniversary season but the extent of the response has greatly exceeded my expectations. For example in just three European cities in the last six months I have attended half a dozen or so performances each of Don Quixote, Don Juan, Ein Heldenleben and Till Eulenspiegel admittedly all popular works, plus three performances of Eine Alpensinfonie, a work much less commonly encountered.
It comes as no surprise that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) under the baton of Andris Nelsons has joined in the Strauss celebrations. Here on Orfeo the CBSO has released three of Strauss’s early and most popular scores Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. Although we are not told this in the booklet notes, the chief executive of the CBSO confirmed to me that the performances on this release are all live recordings. Actually this is the orchestra’s third volume in their Richard Strauss series with its previous Orfeo releases comprising Ein Heldenleben and Suite from Der Rosenkavalier on C803091A and Eine Alpensinfonie and Dance of the Seven Veils on C833111A.
The first work on the disc Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 was composed by Strauss in 1896 inspired by the poetic imagery and chapter headings of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Strauss himself described the programme as depicting “the relationship of nature and human will”. The score is revered mainly for its wonderful opening passage a depiction of Sunrise which is undoubtedly one of the glories of classical music. Nelsons’s CBSO gleams and shimmers beautifully and dramatically in Sunrise with the organ pedal reverberating impressively around Symphony Hall. Under Nelsons his Birmingham Orchestra is excellently drilled playing with a clarity and polish which doesn’t come at the expense of excitement. The assured Nelsons ensures all the lyrical and expressive energy of Strauss’s score using such a wonderfully judged dynamic. Of all the established versions of Also sprach Zarathustra my first recommendation for the remarkable excitement it generates is from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under William Steinberg recorded in 1970/71 at the Symphony Hall, Boston, USA on Deutsche Grammophon. Recorded back in 1954 at Orchestra Hall, Chicago I also value the account from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner on RCA Red Seal.
Strauss was aged only twenty-four when he commenced sketches for Don Juan in 1888 - a tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau’s dramatic poem. It was the seventeenth century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina who created the character of the renowned Spanish lover Don Juan from traditional folk legends. Regarded as a revolutionary work when Don Juan was introduced at Weimar in 1889 its success elevated Strauss to superstar status. It’s not hard to imagine that this was an extremely happy period in Strauss’s life as around this time he fell in love with his future wife the soprano Pauline de Ahna. Conductor Nelsons ensures a heroic feel to the noble introduction. In this moody and colourful score Nelsons produces an exhilarating performance remarkable not only for its rhythmic strength but for the beauty of the more lyrical moments. The assured Birmingham orchestra find a striking range of orchestral colour with robust surges of restless energy in the stormy passages that feels almost overpowering. As demonstrated by this performance Nelsons is a very fine Straussian but I still have great admiration for the 1957 Dresden account from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm and also the 1972/73 Berlin account from Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan, both on Deutsche Grammophon. There is much to like in both the 1961 Orchestra Hall, Chicago recording from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner on RCA Red Seal and for the 1954 Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin account by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Fritz Lehmann on Deutsche Grammophon reissued on Regis. Of the more recent accounts there is considerable excitement in the 2012 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh recording from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck on Reference Recordings.
The tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks - after an old picaresque legend in rondo form for large orchestra was composed by Strauss in 1895. Till Eulenspiegel Strauss’s mischievous joker is a character from fourteenth century traditional German folk legends that relate his allegorical adventures. At the end Till meets the hangman at the gallows but the listener is left wondering if the prankster has really died. Strauss’s agreeably heart-warming score is so full of light-hearted mischief and Nelsons gives a sense of spontaneity to his performance together with tremendous bite and brilliance. This is a compelling depiction of the likable rascal Till Eulenspiegel in one of the finest of modern accounts. Of the established versions I admire the Berliner Philharmoniker under Rudolf Kempe that was recorded in 1958 at Grunewaldkirche, Berlin and reissued on Regis. Of the newer recordings there are strong claims for the convincing live 2009 Munich recording from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons on BR Klassik. In addition I hold a high regard for the 2012 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recording from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck on Reference Recordings.
Andris Nelsons and the CBSO are in remarkable form on this recording of early Richard Strauss tone poems but the competition from the established recordings in the catalogue is fierce. The satisfying sonics of the Symphony Hall, Birmingham are clear and well balanced assisting the desirability of this Orfeo release.
Michael Cookson
Previous review: John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Also sprach Zarathustra ~~ Don Juan ~~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
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