Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Debussy: Jeux - Roth
LSO Live LSO0833
Classical - Orchestral
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)
Opening with its famous ‘Sunrise’ fanfare, there is no mistaking Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. A bold, intrepid tone poem, famously used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it explores mankind’s place in the universe, diving headfirst into themes of religion, science and individuality.
François-Xavier Roth’s interpretation of Debussy’s Jeux completes the album. The kaleidoscopic score begins in a darkened stillness, developing fluidly with flashes of light and playful, chromatic motifs that perfectly depict the ‘games’—firstly childish, later amorous—of the ballet’s characters.
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Review by Graham Williams - March 16, 2023
It would be difficult to find a more unlikely pairing on disc than the two works presented on this exceptionally fine 5.1 multi-channel SACD from LSO Live, however, the results speak for themselves.
Strauss’s 1896 Nietzsche inspired tone poem ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ ‘für großes Orchester’ is now a staple concert item thanks, one might posit, to the popularity of the ‘Sunrise’ with which it begins. On the other hand Debussy’s ballet ‘Jeux’ (1912-13), is an enigmatic and exquisite orchestral masterpiece whose diaphanous textures and fluidity require special understanding from its interpreters. François-Xavier Roth has already committed both these pieces to disc. ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ appeared as part of a set of the complete Strauss tone poems with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, while ‘Jeux’ was one item on a CD of Debussy played by Les Siècles, the orchestra founded by Roth that performs works on modern and period instruments, appropriate to their epoch.
Roth’s return to these two pieces as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, a position he has held since 2017, has unquestionably yielded exceptional results on this recording. His interpretation of ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ hardly differs from his earlier version in terms of tempi, but it has the advantage of incomparably better sound and an orchestra at the top of their game in all departments. From the portentous opening bars followed by powerful but unusually rapid timpani solos it is clear that this is to be an athletic account of a score that can sound bloated in the wrong hands. Luscious string playing underpinned by the organ marks the ‘Von den Hinterweltern’ section while the ensuing ‘Von den Freuden und Leidenshaften’ could hardly be more thrillingly delivered. Roth’s steady build up to the huge climax in ‘Der Genesende’ makes its arrival even more awesome and his six second pause as the sound of the organ dies away adds to the drama of the moment. Roman Simović gives us a sprightly ‘Tanzlied’ full of echt-Viennese charm and the ‘Nachtwanderlied’ that closes the work is performed with great sensitivity and immaculate wood wind unanimity in their final chords.
Debussy’s ballet ‘Jeux’, that completes the programme on this disc was composed in 1912 for Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. It is now regarded as the greatest of his final orchestral works. As on his previous recording of the piece on period instruments Roth captures the ethereal quicksilver quality of the music with stylish playing from an ever responsive LSO. The myriad of tempo fluctuations are skilfully managed by the conductor while the close miked sound ensures considerable orchestral detail is audible. There are a surprising number of excellent recordings of this piece available to collectors and Roth’s interpretation occupies a worthy position amongst the best of them.
‘Jeux’ was recorded live in DSD128fs on 25th January 2018 while ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ was recorded in DSD256 on 13 and 14th November of the same year. The Classic Sound team has considerable experience in coping with the problematic acoustic of the Barbican and the sound quality in both works on this SACD is very good indeed without ever being exceptional. ‘Jeux’ fares best thanks to Debussy’s pellucid orchestration, the precision of Roth’s interpretation and the clarity of the recording. Though ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ ideally demands a concert hall with a more spacious and ambient acoustic to do full justice to Strauss’s opulent orchestration, this recording certainly ticks many of the right boxes.
One’s only regret is that for a disc with a below average playing time of 49.45, it was not possible to add another work. Nevertheless that does not make this disc any less desirable for those seeking compelling accounts of either of these works.
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