Classical Album Review: Conductor Andris Nelsons’s Over-Sweetened “Strauss”

By Jonathan Blumhofer

This is a release that showcases many of Andris Nelsons’s strengths, including his strong sensitivity for instrumental colors, blends, and balances. At the same time, it also demonstrates the conductor’s hit-or-miss nature with the core repertoire.

For the past seven years, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) have been undertaking a Shostakovich symphony cycle for Deutsche Grammophon. That project isn’t quite done — the two outstanding symphonies are scheduled to be taped during the orchestra’s upcoming season — but that hasn’t held the conductor and his forces back from a second ambitious project, this one centered on much (though by no means all) of Richard Strauss’s orchestral music. In the latest effort, the BSO shares equal billing with Nelsons’s “other” band, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

On the one hand, this is a release that showcases many of Nelsons’s strengths, including his strong sensitivity for instrumental colors, blends, and balances. At the same time, it also demonstrates the conductor’s hit-or-miss nature with the core repertoire: sometimes unwilling to assert himself too strongly on the music making; sometimes chasing after surface details at the expense of dramatic tension or expressive depth; sometimes simply getting bogged down in the weeds; sometimes all of the above.

At the very least, one can’t stint Nelsons or either of his ensembles for sumptuous playing. Their tonal warmth suits certain of these selections — say, the “Four Symphonic Interludes” from Intermezzo, the suites from Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, plus music from Schlagobers and the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome — exceedingly well. Despite what might happen elsewhere, Nelsons has a good feel for rhythms and textures in these pieces; they dance and unfold with winning transparency.

So does Burleske, Strauss’s single-movement 1886 showpiece for piano and orchestra. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have Yuja Wang powering her way through its thickets. Wang’s a brilliant pianist and she tackles Burleske’s solo line with color and grace, nowhere more impressively than in the (slightly) meditative majore sequence around its middle.

Yet, good as Wang’s Burleske is, hers isn’t quite so stunning an effort as Bertrand Chamayou’s account from last year with Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra (the Roman group is miked more favorably on their release than the BSO is on this one; here, the orchestra’s too far back in the mix). Indeed, the more one draws comparisons between Nelsons’s interpretations and those from the near and distant past (and, with the thoroughly recorded Strauss, it’s virtually impossible to avoid doing so), the present effort consistently comes up short.

The Leipzig Don Juan, for instance, is admirably clear: you can actually make out every note of the strings’ opening 16th-note string figure. But it’s also tonally fat, lacking the requisite lustiness and rhythmic edge to really come off; oddly, the music’s motion almost comes to a complete stop just before the climactic horn tune is introduced. It’s a reading that, for spirit and character, doesn’t hold a candle to Manfred Honeck’s incandescent account with the Pittsburgh Symphony, among many others.

While this Boston Tod und Verklärung, though not fully lived on the edge and occasionally episodic, generally fares better (Honeck, again, has a superior take on the piece), Don Quixote falls victim to Nelsons’s penchant for losing sight of the big picture. Yes, Yo-Yo Ma and Steven Ansell are admirable soloists — how could those two be anything less? — and the BSO plays with an impressive lightness of touch, but here’s a reading that feels, ultimately, too self-absorbed for its own good.

Better, if not exactly imperative, are the Boston Till Eulenpiegel (see also Tills from Honeck and Georg Solti) and Also sprach Zarathustra (good, but lacking the fire of Reiner and the sweep of Karajan — or William Steinberg and the BSO, also on DG), and a Leipzig Ein Heldenleben (Pappano’s Santa Cecilia recording is, interpretively, more distinguished). Gewandhausorchester concertmaster Frank-Michael Erben’s solos in the last, though, are exquisite.

Meanwhile, though the recording is marred by some overpresent percussion, the BSO gambols vigorously through Sinfonia domestica. (Still, you’d be better-served in this piece by Marek Janowski with the RSO Berlin or either Lorin Maazel or Andre Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic: all three offer, overall, more vibrancy in their respective accounts of the score.)

Surprisingly, Macbeth, Strauss’s dreadfully stiff and motivically stilted 1888 tone poem (also his first; who could have guessed that Don Juan was the next piece up the composer’s sleeve?), receives a fantastically intense reading from the Leipzig orchestra and those same forces deliver a pleasing, if somewhat stately, Aus Italien. Also solid, if not exactly shattering, is the Leipzig Metamorphosen.

Alas, the Boston Eine Alpensinfonie misses (almost literally) the forest for the trees, frequently getting mired in its own excesses. For recent comparisons, check out Franz Welser-Möst with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Vladmir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic, or Nelsons with the City of Birmingham Symphony (see below).

Granted, nothing is so bad as the concluding Festliches Präludium, which is played by the combined orchestral forces and drawn out to an almost obscene degree. True, the score is no masterpiece — but it can still sing thrillingly if allowed to move naturally (just listen to Leonard Bernstein and E. Power Biggs make the most of it with the New York Philharmonic). In this instance, though, Nelsons takes the complete opposite tack and the results are, predictably, grotesque.

The strange thing is that Nelsons recorded much of this music before — and, by and large, superbly — when he was music director in Birmingham. Those recordings (on the Orfeo label) are very much still available. What the unevenness of this cycle, particularly its exchange of dramatic tension for sonic sheen, says about his view of Strauss today is anyone’s guess.

One hopes, though, that the conductor’s take will mature and return more to where it was than stay where it is. As documented, Nelsons’s approach to this repertoire is a bit like the musical equivalent of a pavlova: gorgeous from the outside but, once you dig into it, unrelentingly one-dimensional and incessantly sweet. Yes, Strauss once jestingly called himself a “first-class second-rate composer.” Even so, there’s much more substance to him and his music than what little gets mined from it here.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


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