Young Latvian Nelsons conducts as though he believes in every bar.
Andrew McGregor 2010
Why would a German label, known for historic and broadcast recordings of great names and occasions at the Salzburg Festival, send a team to the British midlands to record a regional orchestra conducted by its young Latvian Music Director in the first year of his tenure, and in tone poems by Richard Strauss, of all things?
It doesn’t take long to find out. From the first brazen blast of horns and impetuous swirl of strings in the Rosenkavalier Suite, Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra deliver all the electricity of these live performances, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben opens with a verve and immediacy that validates the buzz that’s been coming from Birmingham about this new partnership. The hero? Strauss claimed he had no-one specific in mind, yet there’s little doubt given the self-quotation in the score, and the titles of the six sections, that at the very least Strauss was measuring himself against his notional hero, taking an orchestral swipe at the twittering critics, illustrating his marriage to Pauline with her voice as solo violin (leader Laurence Jackson), and tenderness alternating with bickering.
Nelsons talks in the booklet interview about Heldenleben taking Strauss to the boundary that he later crosses on the operatic stage with works like Elektra and Salome, and he conducts Heldenleben with a high seriousness and at times a heady eroticism that emphasises the links with those later works. The pace of the performance is impeccably judged, the orchestra superbly balanced, and the recording is a beauty: airy, detailed, radiating warmth.
But they’re up against some of the great Straussians: Karajan and Kempe, Haitink, Reiner or Krauss, never mind former CBSO MD Simon Rattle, in a live Heldenleben with his Berlin orchestra. They can’t match that luxurious upholstery in Birmingham, but Strauss isn’t all velvet and fur, and if there’s a trade-off between opulence and immediacy, Andris really makes it count. He may have his reservations about the Rosenkavalier Suite and its “crude transitions”, but he conducts as though he believes in every bar. Strauss’s hero may be the draw, but you’ll stay to dance.