STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra.* SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 4, “The Poem of Ecstasy” / Seattle Symphony Orch.; Thomas Dausgaard, cond / Seattle Symphony Media SSM1025 (live: *September 14, September 21 & 23, 2019)
Well, cut off my legs and call me shorty.
I’ve been waiting 35 years to hear a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra as great as the one that Klaus Tennstedt conducted with the Cleveland Orchestra back in 1985, and longer still to hear a commercially issued recording as good as the one that Fritz Reiner made in 1954 (not the 1960 remake) for RCA Victor.
And here it is.
I was already picking my ears up during the flashy and famous introduction, with its famous organ chords, pounding tympani and trumpet fanfares, but I wanted to wait to hear the rest of the piece. EVERYONE conducts the opening well, even Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic, which was the recording that Stanley Kubrick used for his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but one past that opening the energy level drops and so does one’s interest in the piece.
That wasn’t true of the 1954 Reiner recording, it wasn’t true of Tennstedt’s 1985 Cleveland performance, and it’s not true of this recording, which as coincidence would have it stems from a live performance—and only one, not two where they could splice out the parts they didn’t like—from September 14, 2019.
Dausgaard is so good in this piece that, once he sucks you in, you’re hooked until the music ends 32 minutes later. No, it’s not quite as fast as the 1954 Reiner recording, but that’s OK. He hits on all cylinders and lets none of the important passages—or any passages in the score, for that matter—pass by unnoticed. And WOW are the sonics great!!! This is nearly as good in terms of hall ambience and orchestral clarity as Thierry Fischer’s great recording of the Mahler Eighth with the Utah Symphony. It’s a sonic blockbuster in addition to being a truly great performance.
Like Reiner and Tennstedt, Dausgaard doesn’t just approach this music as a blockbuster. He is as interested in bringing out the work’s structure as in digging into its emotional appeal, and in this, too, he succeeds handsomely. And if proof be needed that nowadays even symphony orchestras from less glamorous cities can play on a level that was one thought reserved only for the biggest and most “important” orchestras in America (Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles), this is it. I could not hear a single section, or spot soloist, that did not play up to par. At only one spot did I feel that the microphones did not pick up a section of the music clearly enough, and that was at the swirling, rising string figures in “Der Genesende” (track 7). Otherwise, all is perfection, and I DO mean perfection. This is an Also Sprach for the ages.
To say, then, that I was breathlessly waiting to hear how he conducted Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy would be an understatement. This was also well conducted and beautifully played, but I hope that conductor Thomas Dausgaard will forgive me for saying that the performance is not quite as good as the one Riccardo Muti recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But if it isn’t quite as good as Muti, it is considerably better than anyone else’s, and, considering the popularity of this piece that’s saying quite a lot. Once again, Dausgaard pulls the work’s structure together, and that in itself is quite an achievement (except for Muti, only Leopold Stokowski comes close), and once again the sonics are unbelievably spectacular—in fact, much better than the somewhat constricted sound that EMI gave to Muti (made in 1990, still the early years of digital recording).
The bottom line, then, is that this is clearly one of the finest classical recordings of the year, and one that I think would be on my Desert Island list.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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