R. STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30; DEBUSSY: Jeux – London Symphony Orchestra/ François-Xavier Roth – LSO

by | Apr 16, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

R. STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30; DEBUSSY: Jeux – London Symphony Orchestra/ François-Xavier Roth – LSO SACD 0833 (1/21/23) (49:45) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Recorded in live performances of January and November 2018, Roth and the LSO exploit virtuoso sonic flexibility in the two chosen works, the Richard Strauss 1896 symphonic poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra – in reaction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s extended philosophical meditation on the death of God and all metaphysical consolations – and Debussy’s 1913 “modernist” ballet Jeux. 

In the case of Strauss, he rejects any attempt to follow Nietzsche’s text, except for the title of nine sections that chart the course of “evolution” of the human spirit through diverse phases of development, from its barbaric origins on its way to the “Over-man” who himself transcends traditional mortal limits. The famous “Sunrise” motif” C-G-C (in trumpets piano, mezzo-piano and forte) initiates an awakened consciousness of Man, who shall review the various pitfalls to his acquiring pure liberation from false claims upon his spirit, both from religion and science. François-Xavier Roth, like all interpreters of this score on record, must contend with the great precursors before, the renditions by Koussevitzky (1932) and Reiner (1954), with Maazel’s account having served Stanley Kubrick for the film 2001.  Fritz Reiner made a spectacular impression with his Chicago Symphony, especially in the Von den Hinterweltern section, demanding that his strings, in concert with the organ, build a lush climax of voluptuous sonority. So, too, do Roth’s forces, who with their leader, Roman Simovic, will lead the merry Das Tanzlied as an expression of joyful release. 

Mastery of orchestral discipline proves no less evident in the artful Von der Wissenschaft section, a huge fugue meant to depict the intricacies of the rational endeavor to explain Man away. Strauss employs the twelve notes of the chromatic scale to capture the scope of his massive orchestration, if not the vanity of earthly ambition. “Of the Great Yearning” treats the Magnificat and the Credo as preliminaries to an outworn, irrelevant faith, although the music itself betrays no irony. Roth’s forces execute every nuance in the score, from the massive to most delicate, as in the controlled, extended Das Nachtwanderlied, with its gradations of pp arising from the fateful strokes of Midnight, the two tones of C (the Cosmos) and B (Man) simultaneously juxtaposed against the other to form an unresolved enigma. In Der Genesende, out of a fugal texture and stretto, the trumpet must play a huge leap and land on a high D#, smoothly done. The entire symphonic poem maintains a pulse and tension worthy of the notable performances from past masters. 

Debussy’s curious ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, Jeux, received its 1913 premiere only two weeks before the notorious Le Sacre du printemps of Igor Stravinsky. The scenario reads like something for film director Antonioni:

The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a young man and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps suggests the idea of childish play: they play hide and seek, they quarrel. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in a pale light; they embrace. This spell is broken when another tennis ball mysteriously appears. Surprised and alarmed, the young man and the girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.

In the 1980 Herbert Ross film Nijinsky, aspects of the ballet become realized, as the famed dancer searches his current scores for something daringly original. Both Nijinsky and Debussy sought to achieve the same successful notoriety they had with their work on 1912’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Jeux has no real “melodies” as such: it builds a loose theme and variations or rondo structure by asserting fragments at us that coalesce, relatively speaking, into clusters of sound, some quite intense. Almost akin to Webern, Debussy injects vibrant colors and contrasting tempos as sources of identifiable sound-centers, given the impulsive, eccentric actions of the tennis companions. Years ago, in Atlanta, the daughter of conductor Victor de Sabata appeared with husband Aldo Ceccato for a guest concert. I sought out Ceccato’s wife, armed with a copy of RCA LM 1057, de Sabata’s recording of Jeux for her to sign – it turned out to be “my father’s favorite recording! The score has a refined voluptuousness that fights against the conventions of respectability.”

From an eerie, opening “echo” effect, Debussy’s score tests our perception of melodic and rhythmic unity, especially as tone-color has substituted for anything like traditional lyricism. The playful, flirtatious atmosphere vibrates in gossamer or throbbing textures, with some 60 changes of tempo, a real coup for the LSO string, wind and brass players. The use of pentatonic scales and modal harmony adds to the elusive exotics of the occasion, a celebration, as it were, of the games people play that exacerbate the emotional mistrust that too often inhabits human relationships. 

An exemplary pair of orchestral, virtuoso pieces this disc, whose only drawback might lie in its brevity. 

—Gary Lemco  

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