- Andris Nelsons (conductor); Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Boston Symphony Orchestra
- Recorded 2021
- DG 486 2040 (7CD)
Andris Nelsons has recorded some of this repertoire quite successfully for Orfeo with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This set, despite featuring two top-class orchestras in the form of the Boston Symphony and Leipzig Gewandhaus, is nowhere near as good. It seems that over these intervening decade Nelsons has lost much of that vigor and inspiration informing his earlier work: here what we have is for the most part a tired conductor dragging his two hapless orchestras over the finish line.
The Leipzig recordings fare the worst here. The playing is for the most part absolutely coma-inducing. Utterly lacking in brilliance and soft-edged to a fault, it’s a regression to their seedy-sounding days under Kurt Masur. Just listen to the very opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra (track 34) — timbrally inconsistent timpani, recessed trumpets, cushiony attacks and all — and compare it to the infinitely more impactful, colorful playing from the Birmingham orchestra. It’s also perhaps no coincidence that Nelsons is on his worst interpretive behavior here. Sample the Don Juan (track 18): at a shocking 20 minutes and 14 seconds, it’s not only the longest Don Juan I have ever encountered, but also the droopiest, most depressing wallow through the love music. Sinopoli with the Staatskapelle Dresden was (almost) as slow here, but for all his indulgence he was at least interesting, which is more than what could be said about Nelsons. Even the usually unkillable Burleske with Yuja Wang (track 19) dies a sloppy death under Nelsons’ listless, protracted direction (taking 20 minutes 39 seconds). Again, timings aren’t everything. Glenn Gould’s 24-minute recording with Vladimir Golschmann and the Toronto Symphony offers so much more bite, rhythm and energy than Nelsons and company muster.
With the Boston Symphony, one at least has the advantage of an orchestra whose textural transparency and inherently vivid timbral qualities mitigate (somewhat) against the flabbiness in the conducting, just as how a dash of lemon juice enlivens a greasy schnitzel. The Alpine Symphony (tracks 43-64) showcases the brilliant virtuosity of the orchestra; likewise the humorously cacophonous finale of the Symphonia Domestica (track 87). But, as with the Leipzig recordings, the general lack of momentum is disturbing: too often Nelsons lets the tension slack into a directionless doldrum. This even affects Till Eulenspiegel, inconceivably split into five tracks (tracks 13-17), which plods just as it should skip along mischievously. The dismal musical proceedings are not helped by DG’s recorded sound, airless and dynamically compressed in Leipzig, garish and exaggeratedly bassy in Boston. Even the album art design, a shouty bright yellow and black, serves to cheapen the whole production.
It’s not all bad — how can it be? The playing of the orchestras are never less than proficient (though some strings attacks in Leipzig are surprisingly sloppy), and there are fleeting moments of sonic opulence and genuine musical insight. Several items, like the Alpine Symphony, the Aus Italien and the Rosenkavalier Suite, manage to be half-decent as well, while not for a moment challenging the established greats. All in all, Nelsons’ new Strauss box is a depressing affair and a huge disappointment to all who enjoyed his previous work in Strauss, yours truly included. For a great survey of Strauss, Kempe’s iconic set with the Staatskapelle Dresden remains safely unchallenged.
Fleeting moments of sonic opulence do not compensate for flabby Strauss conducting utterly bereft of energy, intensity and brilliance, recorded in subpar sound. A depressing document of an overworked, under-inspired artist in decline.