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CD Review

Richard Strauss

  • Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
  • Don Juan, Op. 20
  • Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Op. 28
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Orfeo C878141A
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As a relatively new writer, I'm not even going to bother claiming that my contributions to the Strauss year of 2014 were especially important (though I did review some nice historical discs in 2013-2014). Still, even an amateur like me generally doesn't let a disc like this slip through the cracks. I got caught up in big boxes from Karajan and Krauss and let this newer issue collect dust. I've reviewed two individual Strauss discs for Classical Net; a superb program from Pittsburgh and a dreadful one from Berlin. It turns out that this Birmingham program is among the better discs with these works on the market, in beautiful sound.

Andris Nelsons is making a name for himself at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in part because he's able to master the big Romantic-era classics. Young, charismatic, and emotional, Nelsons is like Gustavo Dudamel with less hype. His work in Birmingham has gotten less attention than you might expect, but he's clearly at home in this music. From the opening of Zarathustra, you can tell this will be a highly-charged and deeply engaging performance. Getting English orchestras to play with a rich bass sound and sensuality is one of the most difficult things in classical music. Otto Klemperer could do the former, and Leonard Bernstein could do the latter. Nelsons works very hard to accomplish both. The deep rumble that opens the disc is very satisfying, and so is the thunderous percussion (almost a bit vulgar in nature). After the opening fanfare – in which the organ is perhaps too recessed – the work storms along, with real energy and excitement. Compare this to the recent Berlin Philharmonic effort, and there's no contest. Nelsons has his Birmingham forces playing with everything they have.

It's not a perfect performance; the climax during "The Convalescent" is a bit too muddy despite one scorcher of a buildup. The sound is generally a bit weird in terms of what gets spotlighted (that organ does eventually make itself known). And Nelsons isn't especially subtle throughout the program, there are moments where I wished he'd take his foot off the gas. Still, perhaps swiftness is to be preferred to dullness, and the playing of the various soloists crackles with energy and vivacity. The same goes for the other two tone poems. Szell, Kempe, and Karajan still reign supreme in this work, but Nelsons is fully able to play with the big boys. The conductor is more willing to let the music breathe here, allowing for some gorgeous string interludes, though the odd sonic picture remains. The City of Birmingham Symphony does not match Berlin (or Vienna) under Karajan in terms of bringing out the steamier aspects of the score, despite Nelsons obvious effort to effectively balance the harp and winds effectively. The English players just make the more luminous moments a touch too matter-of-fact. That said, the lead into the famous horn theme is pretty spectacular. And Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks sounds equally fine, with a clear sense of fun and mischief totally lacking from Dudamel. Here the players let their hair down a bit, and seem to truly enjoy the music. Nelsons also seems to have a great time. Orfeo provides great value here, and the sonic qualities aren't bad, simply unusual to my ears. To others it may not matter at all; this is a great disc any way you look at it.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman