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Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Metamorphosen - Järvi

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Metamorphosen - Järvi

Sony Classical (Japan)  SICC-10219

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Metamorphosen

NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo
Paavo Järvi (conductor)

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Review by John Broggio - October 1, 2017

This is the third of Järvi's trilogy of Richard Strauss, showcasing the considerable merits of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo.

The main draw here is Also Sprach Zarathustra, a work sadly lacking the multitude of unreservedly recommendable modern accounts that even (in relative terms) "second tier" Strauss like Eine Alpensinfonie have accrued. Issued almost contemporaneously with Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Mahler: Totenfeier - Jurowski, expectations therefore weigh heavily.

[Aside: I had originally intended to write a review of the Jurowski disc as well but Graham Williams' words could have, minor linguistic differences apart, been dictated by me. I will therefore respectfully refrain from merely repeating the same eloquently expressed sentiment and conclusions in a rehashing of prose. I agree that by far the most involving performance is that of Totenfeier and is instantly recommendable for this alone.]

Like Holst: The Planets, Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra - Gardner (and the rest of Järvi's mini-series), this is taken from live performances and in the opening Einleitung (the famous "sunrise") this pays enormous dividends. For a start, the crucial organ is present in the same acoustic as the orchestra and it just sounds both "right" (in proportion to the orchestra) and "wrong" (in that curious acoustic phenomenon when the orchestra suddenly leaves it 'plein jeu', which is then echoed sotto voce at the very close of the piece). As in all great recordings (with that in Strauss: The Complete Analogue Recordings - Karajan arguably the finest account of this work ever set down on disc), the double basses seem to emerge from a silky black silence before defining their own version of nighttime. The rising trumpet and ensuing chords are voiced to perfection, with no hint of uncertainty of tone or timbre - in this sunrise, there is not a cloud in the sky. The crucial timpani strokes are given time and space to reverberate and are dramatic without ever overstepping the bounds of musical taste.

The following Von den Hinterweltlern starts with ominous stabs and murmurings deep in the orchestra; in comparison with Karajan, Järvi gives greater prominence to the woodwind, which makes the soft caress of the upper strings entry all the more effective. Here and throughout this mini-cycle, the string playing is really rather good - perhaps not quite possessing the same sheen as Berlin in the 1970s but few would quibble with the tonal lustre or depth that they achieve here. The woodwind and brass are equally fine and it is a source of continual delight to the ear to have such refined, rich sound so consistently delivered. Indeed, in Von den großen sehnsucht, the woodwind take their turn in the spotlight with great aplomb and, thank's to Järvi's exciting pacing lead thrillingly into Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften which Järvi and orchestra vividly depict the passionate music.

Das Grablied is wonderfully played: the turbulence around the central musical line is marvellously played by the orchestra and captured equally well by the engineers. From here, we are plunged into (temporary) darkness once again with Von der Wissenschaft. Järvi and the NHK SO manage to achieve that sense of "aural collapse" in the opening, so that one is tempted to lean in to hear all the hushed playing (everything is audible, wonderfully so) that gradually builds to a titanic climax in Der Genesende. The interspersing iridescent textures are a miracle of orchestration and it is wonderful to hear them presented so excitingly in a modern recording. Where others play this music so cleanly it is often at the expense of "feeling"; here the orchestra leaves no doubt as to their convictions. Not for the first time, the path to this restatement of the opening material is full of detail normally only heard in concert or with ones eyes. Järvi manages to maintain the musical line throughout this kaleidoscope of sound with considerable aplomb; some matters of orchestral balance aside, it is if Karajan had been reincarnated on the podium so sure is his & the orchestras grasp!

For many listeners, Der Tanzlied, where Strauss provides his own take on how to push an Austro-Hungarian dance to its limits, is one of the great tests of a concert master. Here, sadly not credited, the NHK SO's concert master would (on this performance) sound at home in place of Michel Schwalbé for Karajan and there can be few better compliments than that. As this section draws to a close, the pulse quickens in a way that Karajan wouldn't permit - some will prefer the more measured approach but others will appreciate the extra rush of adrenaline; again, Järvi keeps everything (just) on the right side of vulgarity.

As those listeners familiar with Karajan's readings of Strauss' oeuvre will know, one of his greatest abilities was to manage the "long goodbyes" in their epilogues such as Das Nachtwandlerlied. Here, Järvi is just as convincing, with just a little more "space" between the final phrases; this is a minor point where some will prefer Järvi, others Karajan. The sense of comforting uncomfortableness in the closing bars that we first heard at the end of Einleitung is palpable.

After decent pause, the strings of the NHK SO get a(nother) chance to star in Metamorphosen. They take it with measured grace and no small amount of passion. Here Järvi and Karajan do depart in performance practice; Karajan had dispensation from Strauss to supplement the 23 solo strings with the whole ensemble at climaxes, something he did to shattering effect throughout his career. What is lost in power is gained in clarity (like that found in Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen - Luisi) and is frequently revealing. The depth of sonority (climaxes aside) is arguably the closest to and certainly the best captured approximation of the mid-Karajan era Berlin string sound on disc; given the practically synonymous relationship between Strauss and that orchestra at the time, this is a real achievement.

In terms of how Järvi paces and balances the work though, Järvi gives greater attention to the lower strings and the nagging rhythm from the Eroica symphony, so the emotional payoff when this is finally presented "straight", it has more of an emotional resonance than others have found. Those worried that Järvi's HIP approach to Beethoven would lead to a travesty of a performance, can be reassured; there is radiance, tumult and grief flooding out of the speakers. For obvious reasons it may not match Karajan's 1948 account in Vienna for emotional intensity but it easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his 1983 account in terms of beauty. The sound here is more forward than afforded to the Dresden Staatskapelle for Luisi but there is enough "air" to let the music breathe and this marvellous section easily withstand such scrutiny.

The notes are, naturally enough, largely in Japanese but there is a short essay from Järvi himself on the series and this release in particular. The sound is astonishing in its depth, translucency and richness. Although these performances were recorded in concert, the audience is impressively silent throughout. On a trivial level, Also sprach Zarathustra has a track for each of the sections - good for demonstrating ones equipment!

This is ultra-premium priced (if not resident in Japan) and contains just shy of one hour of music making. In spite of that, the music making is very special; so special that it is good value. Very strongly recommended indeed.

Copyright © 2017 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

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Comment by hiredfox - September 27, 2017 (1 of 10)

This third disc of Jaarvi's Strauss survey with the NHK Symphony Orchestra will probably be regarded as their best - save the best 'til last - as once again these artistes find that elusive and magical synergy that has characterised their two previous releases. Once again the Sony recording team have not been found wanting either, having produced an outstanding recording in DSD (in stereo) that radiates illuminating and room filling detail in a highly convincing acoustic, yielding a palpable and eerie sense of realism. Honestly, I have heard nothing better from any label in SACD from my system be it with the SA7 or the current SA10. This is music making that brings joy to the soul.

Of the two symphonic poems on offer here Metamorphosen with its underlying feelings of deep anxiety is played with more nuance and insight than is usual and in this author’s opinion is the most successful of the two. Arguably, this is the finest account of the string poem currently available on SACD. I thoroughly recommend this disc to readers on the basis of this single performance alone.

That is not to say that the more familiar, oft recorded Also Sprach Zarathustra should be regarded as a filler. Indeed it is the headline performance of the disc and Jaarvi’s performance is very fine indeed fired up by a pulsating reading of the 'infamous' 22 bars of Einleitung with notably crisp timpani and convincing organ throbbing catching the attention. The sheer sumptuousness of strings in the third movement will unsettle your emotions. This is music that you feel rather than hear.

A splendid account by any standards and as good as any on SACD but played alongside von Karajan’s outstanding 1974 version the superiority of the latter is aurally self-evident even if harder to quantify. String textures a little more subtle perhaps, a slightly greater sense of von Karajan’s and his players being 'as one' maybe but the margins are very narrow and those seeking a modern account recorded in DSD as opposed to a re-treaded early-day analogue recording need look no further.

A superb disc and a must buy although caveat emptor! Not only is the disc expensive to buy being sourced only from Japan but UK Customs ensured a doubling of that price before it reached my door step. No doubt most countries apply similar ’tariffs’.

Comment by diw - September 28, 2017 (2 of 10)

Thanks for your comment. I am really hoping someone can weigh in on a comparison with the recent Pentatone release, including how the MC sonics compare. I also was not crazy about the Chandos Zarathustra earlier this year, but would like to purchase only 1 of the 2 current releases.

Comment by hiredfox - September 29, 2017 (3 of 10)

I have not heard Jurowski yet save for clips on-line that tell us nothing of any import. I imagine your choice may come down to couplings rather than through differentiation of performance as the margins at the top are becoming slender. Jaarvi has taken a huge gamble in that respect but pulls off a magical performance of Metamorphosen that will attract many who maybe do not listen to that particular poem very often.

Comment by [Current93] - September 30, 2017 (4 of 10)

hiredfox says: Once again the Sony recording team have not been found wanting either...

Actually, this cycle was fully produced and recorded by Octavia Exton team, which earlier had been often criticized for their multichannel records.

Comment by hiredfox - October 1, 2017 (5 of 10)

Thanks for this correction. Exton stereo recordings have always been first class in my system.

Comment by John Broggio - October 1, 2017 (6 of 10)

DJW - sonics are roughly equal, PentaTone give a little more rounded sound (but nothing as much as say Chandos), this is a little more analytical. Both are wonderful from a sonic perspective but having spent money on both these discs, I'd more happily repurchase this account despite the price differential.

Comment by hiredfox - October 3, 2017 (7 of 10)

Nice review John, glad we see things in much the same way.

Comment by William Hecht - October 3, 2017 (8 of 10)

After all the back and forth about the recent Zarathustras I'm glad I still have my EMI DVD-A of Kempe's Dresden recording (with the Alpine). DVD-As are a pain in the ass to operate and it's only 24/48. But sourced from beautiful analog mc originals it's just one example of the treasures in the EMI vaults that could have filled mc listeners with countless hours of pleasure (both the Rostropovich and Muti Tchaikovsky sets are better than anything we've gotten on sacd to cite just two other examples) had the company not been run into the ground by brainless twits and the rights end up with people who think multichannel is a curse word. When I think of what Pentatone could have done with that catalog I could cry.

Comment by Jan Arell - October 5, 2017 (9 of 10)

Does anyone know if Sony makes Japanese releases available in Europe later? 40 € (via JPC) is rather expensive.
It's 26 € from CD Japan, but then shipping, customs and VAT must be added so I guess it will end up at an even higher price.

Comment by fausto kantiano - October 5, 2017 (10 of 10)

in response to Jan Arell: I believe no European versions other than as regular redbooks are made available. See e.g. the Järvi Bruckner cycle. Only ##7 and 9 were separately released as SACDs in Europe; later instalments of the SACD (2, 4, 5 and 6) are Japanese only.