Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (CD review)

Also, Till Eulenspiegel's Lustige Streiche; Don Juan. Gustavo Dudamel, Berlin Philharmonic. DG B0018913-02.

Gustavo Dudamel is the energetic young Venezuelan conductor who rose to prominence meteorically a short while back, going from leading the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra to becoming the Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony and the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. On the present disc he is leading another one of world’s great orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic, and recording for one of the oldest and most prestigious labels in the world, Deutsche Grammophon. He’s come a long way in a short time.

And to what does he owe his success? Talent, of course, and loads of it. Along with a remarkable degree of enthusiasm. I met a young fellow the other day who had worked with Dudamel as part of a choir; he said the man was the most inspirational conductor he had ever experienced, Dudamel communicating his spirit to the players in a most-exceptional way. Certainly, Dudamel always appears to love what he’s doing and seems to expend as much energy at it as a tennis star playing a five-set match. The man will never gain weight if he continues to show as much animation as he does leading an orchestra.

The result of all this, you might expect, would be extravagantly overblown showpieces, and in the beginning of his career, that’s how some of his work appeared to me. Yet perhaps it’s a sign of Dudamel’s growing maturity that this present collection of well-known Richard Strauss tone poems with the Berlin Philharmonic is actually a lot more reflective and lyrical than you might expect from the conductor. It’s also perhaps a sign that Dudamel wanted to play to the strengths of the older orchestra members. Or it’s a sign of respect for the orchestra’s other major recordings of Zarathustra (for DG and Decca) under the celebrated Herbert von Karajan. After all, Dudamel no doubt knew that many listeners would be comparing his DG recording with Karajan’s, especially the later digital one. He didn’t want to sound like the new kid on the block trying to show off and falling on his head.

This is not say, however, that Dudamel’s recording surpasses all others. For my money, there are still any number of conductors who have essayed these Strauss works to at least slightly more telling effect. Let’s start with the first piece on the program, and I’ll try to explain.

German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote the symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896, his inspiration a philosophical novel by the philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss divided the music into nine sections, naming the sections after various chapters of the book.

It might be best, though, not to put a lot of stock in the literal meaning of each of these sections but instead to enjoy them for their figurative spirit. In fact, Strauss himself, whom some people criticized at the time for trying to put Nietzsche’s philosophy into music, said, “I did not intend to write philosophical music, or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its evolution, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra.” Fair enough.

Now, to Dudamel’s interpretation of Zarathustra. While maintaining Strauss’s spirit, evoking a good deal of sympathy for Nietzsche’s ideas, and sounding thoughtful, poignant, and at times quite elegant, the reading still isn’t quite as dramatic as Reiner’s (RCA, HDTT), as exciting as Solti’s (Decca), as contemplative as Haitink’s (Philips), as rhythmically compelling as Previn’s (Telarc), as clearheaded as Kempe’s (EMI) or Blomstedt’s (Denon), or as radiant as Karajan’s own (the two for DG and the several for Decca). I mean no disrespect to Dudamel; his is a fine interpretation. He’s just up against a ton of good competition. And if it’s sound alone you’re after, it’s hard to beat the Newport Classic/AUracle Binaural disc with Jorge Mester and the Pasadena Symphony (NCAU-10001).  Sonically, that recording knocks the socks off any other, if sonic sock-knocking is your idea of a good time.

The fact that DG afford Dudamel a live recording doesn’t do him any favors him, either, particularly in Zarathustra. The sound is fairly close up (presumably to minimize audience noise), with an enormous dynamic range but a relatively mild deep bass. You may not be able to notice it on the excerpt below, the famous Introduction to the piece, but it begins at such a low level, it may tempt you to reach over and raise the gain. It’s an organ-pedal note that’s barely audible here at normal listening levels. If you increase the volume, though, you face a crescendo a moment later that will knock you out of your seat or possibly damage your speakers. Certainly, while every audiophile wants a wide dynamic range, this may be too much of a good thing and sounds a little artificial in the process, smacking more of the control booth than the concert hall.

Anyway, moving along, whenever I listen to Zarathustra I can’t help thinking of the old definition of an “audiophile” as one who listens only to the “Introduction.” Well, ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey who can blame anybody; it’s the only part most people know. Surprisingly, the “Introduction” isn’t Maestro Dudamel’s strong suit; he actually seems most comfortable with the more poetic, more touching elements of the score. Under his direction "The Backworldsmen" segment comes off gracefully; "The Great Longing" is appropriately wistful yet optimistically grand; "Of Joys and Passions" could be a tad more intense; "The Song of the Grave" sounds a bit rushed but carries a sincere conviction; "Of Science and Learning" displays a sweet, singing lyricism; "The Convalescent" produces suitable emotion and vitality; "The Dance-Song" exhibits a pleasantly lilting if sometimes curiously halting gait; and the concluding "Song of the Night Wanderer" wraps things up in Strauss's own subdued, luminescent manner.

Maestro Dudamel takes his time through the two couplings, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks and Don Juan, sometimes taking parts of them at a surprisingly leisurely gait. They don't sound slow or labored, however, despite their timings being a few minutes longer than those of most other conductors. Instead, Dudamel carefully builds up the pictorial elements, apparently having great fun with the melodramatic, almost cinematic, qualities of both pieces.

Throughout these proceedings, the Berlin Philharmonic demonstrate why many people consider them the greatest orchestra in the world. They perform flawlessly, producing a rich, lavish, robust, yet cultivated sonic canvas that is quite glorious to hear.

With a total time of almost seventy minutes, the album provides good value in terms of material alone. Dudamel may not yet be a master of this material, but he's coming along nicely, and in a few more years maybe DG will persuade him to revisit Strauss with the Berlin players (and this next time without the live audience).

DG made the recording live in January and February of 2013 in the Great Hall of the Philharmonie, Berlin. As I said earlier, the miking is fairly close, as it is for most live productions, so we don't get much sense of hall ambience or depth to the orchestra. We do, however, get excellent clarity and openness, with ultraclean definition, and a very wide dynamic range. Maybe too wide for the preferences of some listeners. Audience noise is almost nil (you'll hear only occasional background rustling), and the engineers spare us any applause, even at the end of the program. A quick transient response and a strong attack time add to the force of the presentation. Interestingly, bass response and impact are more apparent on the Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan tracks than on Zarathustra, the shorter tone poems sounding better to my ears than the longer Zarathustra.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa