Well quite frankly it sweeps the board with performances and recordings that are quite exceptional.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has been extremely lucky in its choice of conductor with, of course, Sir Simon Rattle directing them for many years, before Sakari Oramo took over followed by Andris Nelsons in 2007.
Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30 (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is subtitled Tondichtung frei nach Friedrich Nietzsche fur großes Orchester or Freely after Friedrich Nietzsche for large orchestra and was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel of the same name.
The famous opening of the Introduktion has all the drama and impact one could want, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra timpani giving it all they’ve got and the Symphony Hall organ sounding brilliantly through. Von den Hinterweltlern (Of the backworldsmen) is not rushed, allowing all the fine string textures to emerge. The music receives an enormous breadth and detail with Strauss’ little orchestral details showing through. Each little change of tempo and feel is expertly done in Van der großen Sehnsucht (Of the great longing), with the organ taking its rightful part in this finely balanced recording. The surges in dynamics and tempo sound so right.
Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of the joys and passions) has all the forward, unstoppable quality needed, a terrific swirl of orchestral sound that is quite irresistible. The woodwind of the CBSO are terrific in Das Grablied (The funeral song) with a fine contribution from the leader of the CBSO (who is not credited but is presumably Laurence Jackson). The rich, low basses are terrific in Von der Wissenschaft (Of science) enhanced by the fine acoustic of Symphony Hall and this fine recording, as the orchestra slowly heaves itself up from the depths, so finely judged by Nelsons, before leaping into the upper strings, is full of life with some terrific woodwind passages.
When the opening theme returns thunderously in Der Genesende (The Convalescent) it is a wonderful moment. All Strauss’ tapestry of wind sounds, later on in this section, are done with such virtuosity and clarity with every detail sounding through. Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song) brings more fine playing from the leader as Nelsons brings a lovely light touch, full of Viennese charm. I don’t think I’ve heard this played with such dash and flair for a long time. There is a lovely passage for oboe and solo violin before the fine strings of the CBSO lead on in a beautifully done culmination for orchestra, magnificently done and quite thrilling and leading to a lovely Das Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer), so sensitively done as the music drops to its hushed coda.
Don Juan, Op.20 has a glorious opening full of energy with Nelsons never holding back, hurtling forward. Lovely sonorities appear and, again, the leader provides some lovely solo playing before the second subject, a glorious romantic theme. There is terrific weight to the orchestra in the surges of orchestral drama and some lovely wind passages. Nelsons controls the dynamics beautifully with some fine hushed orchestral playing. The horns triumphantly announce the main theme before dashing forward to a glorious climax with the CBSO full of swagger, bringing out all of Strauss’ richly orchestrated melody leading to the hushed death of the Don.
From the lilting opening of Til Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28, this is a brilliantly taut performance showing the fine ensemble of the CBSO in Nelsons’ hands. There are some terrific instrumental flourishes in the sudden outburst a few minutes into the piece and, later, some extremely fine solo playing from the leader. Nelsons brings a drama to this tone poem that points up so much, especially in this superb recording. How Nelsons quickly turns the music into a jolly tune then suddenly back to a thoughtful, quiet section is superbly judged. There is spectacularly fine playing from the CBSO as the work progresses with so many fine points before Til also meets his end with a terrific final flourish.
What more can I say? This is as fine a release for Strauss’ 150th anniversary as any you’ll likely to hear. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is an orchestra at the top of its form. As I have already mentioned the recording from Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England is spectacularly good and there are informative booklet notes.
Don’t miss this terrific disc.