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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 Eulenspiegels), Symphony Hall, Birmingham
ORFEO C878141A [65:43]

This is the third volume in Andris Nelsons’ series of Strauss recordings with the CBSO. The team have already issued a sumptuous account of Ein Heldenleben (C 803 091 A). That’s coupled with a flamboyant Rosenkavalier Suite that augurs very well for their upcoming concert performance of the opera in Birmingham on 24 May 2014. They’ve also done a very fine recording of Eine Alpensinfonie (C 833 111 A). At least some of those recordings stem from live concerts – Heldenleben is followed by applause as is the performance of Der Tanz der sieben Schleier from Salome, which is the coupling for Eine Alpensinfonie.
Though Also sprach Zarathustra is the largest work on this programme the best performance of all is that of Don Juan. This is actually a piece that has a bit of history between Nelsons and the CBSO. This was the first piece in which Nelsons conducted the CBSO publicly, back in November 2007. Furthermore, he conducted it during a private concert two months earlier which led to him being offered the role of principal conductor. Hearing this present performance makes one appreciate how effectively it enables him to lay out his credentials. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight one might say that this account of Don Juan epitomises what have become the hallmarks of the Nelsons/CBSO partnership. There’s brilliance and an abundance of energy but also considerable refinement.
This Don Juan fairly bursts out of the starting blocks. The opening pages are hugely vital, the music driven on with impulsive swagger and white-hot energy. However, refinement is by no means abandoned in the heat of the moment, as we can hear as soon as 1:45 with the series of little violin solos — Laurence Jackson, I presume; these are impressive but so is the sensitive accompaniment. The slow episode (from 2:30) is absolutely gorgeous, the CBSO strings sumptuous. When the tempo picks up again (5:03) there’s great flamboyance. A tender oboe solo (7:01) ushers in the Love Music, which is sensuously played. At the end of this episode the horns have their Big Moment and you can readily envisage the swaggering lothario, exultant after his latest conquest, The entire performance is superb, full of drive, passion and excitement and it gave me a vivid reminder of a performance that I heard them give in Symphony Hall in January 2014 (review).
I’ve never really warmed to Also sprach Zarathustra in quite the same way as most of the other tone poems, though it has its moments. The most obvious ‘moment’ is the celebrated opening. It’s tremendous here with the rumbling very low C suggesting a vast space over which the trumpet figure eventually sounds. The music really expands into the Symphony Hall acoustic in this passage, the climax opulent and capped off by the organ. Thereafter there’s much to admire. The strings are yearning and then radiant in ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’ and Nelsons inspires some very passionate playing towards the end of the third section, ‘Von der großen Sehnsucht’, which is carried over into the next section. The reprise of the opening material in ‘Der Genesende’ (track 7 , 1:11) is magnificent, though brief, and there follows in this section a great deal of precise virtuoso playing. ‘Das Tanzlied’ is very well done, not least the splendid solo violin work which is matched by several of the wind principals. There’s tremendous panache later in this section with the horns and brass in full cry. Nelsons handles ‘Das Nachtwandlerlied’ very well indeed. In the low brass chords just before the end (track 9 from 2:58) there’s just the merest hint that the chords are not impeccably together, which might suggest this is a live recording. There’s no applause to confirm the presence of an audience. Whether or not this is a live recording I don’t know, but it seems to me that the spirit of the performance has all the electricity of a live reading.
The programme is completed by Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. This is another splendid performance. Nelsons lays out the escapades of the lovable rogue most convincingly. The work should be a riot of colour and incident and that’s just what we get here. Once again the CBSO’s playing is razor-sharp, except where opulence is required and then they deliver that instead. The various incidents are portrayed with great character – one marvels at how much Strauss manages to cram in to a fifteen-minute score. The drum rolls and ominous brass chords that confirm that Till has gone too far are extremely powerful (12:14) and the clarinet wheedles and pleads to no avail. And then, in the brief epilogue Strauss – and Nelsons – reassure us that it was all a story.
It’s unclear if any of these recordings are, like some of the earlier ones in this series, live but, ‘live’ or not, all three performances are full of life. The recorded sound is excellent and this is a first rate addition to Andris Nelsons’ Strauss series in Birmingham. More, please, while he’s still there.
John Quinn
Masterwork Index: Also sprach Zarathustra ~~ Don Juan ~~ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche