Jurowski conducts orchestral works by Mahler and Strauss

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COMPOSERS: Mahler,Strauss
LABELS: PentaTone
ALBUM TITLE: Mahler * Strauss
WORKS: R Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra; Mahler: Totenfeier; Symphonic Prelude for Orchestra
PERFORMER: Tobias Berndt (organ); Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 597 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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I can sympathise with Vladimir Jurowski’s evident desire to combat hyperinflation in the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Sometimes this spectacular musical daybreak is worked up so much that it utterly eclipses the rest of the work. The sensitive, finely shaped, searching performance that follows on makes a good case for playing things down at the start. The trouble is, the opening now sounds perfunctory – as though Jurowski just can’t wait to get to the ‘real’ business. Surely the Nietzsche-Strauss dawn of higher consciousness merits more reverence than this? Here Zarathustra emerges from his cave, gives the rising sun a quick thumbs-up, then heads off on his travels. The ‘Dance Song’ climax is similarly underwhelming. It’s good to be reminded that there’s more to this piece than awe-inspiring tone painting, but not if that tips the balance too far the other way.

Jurowksi is far more in control of the overall conception in Mahler’s Totenfeier (‘Death Rites’), the original version of the Second Symphony’s funeral march first movement. It works very well as a self-standing tone poem, and the performance has such compelling conviction that occasional differences from the familiar version (orchestration, texture, a small amount of extra material) hardly matter. 

What then of the Symphonic Prelude? This has been variously attributed to Bruckner, the teenage Mahler and Bruckner’s pupil Rudolf Krzyzanowski. My feeling is that it probably contains Bruckner, but that a fair bit of it definitely isn’t Bruckner. Could it be one of Mahler’s student essays? It’s possible to imagine Totenfeier emerging from this. Whoever wrote it, I doubt it’s been better performed. 

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Stephen Johnson