WORKS: Also sprach Zarathustra
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 457 649-2
What was good enough for the young Bela Bartók, dedicated to the art of composing after hearing a performance of Zarathustra, is now good enough for Pierre Boulez. An accompanying essay by the conductor would have been welcome, explaining what in detail attracts and repels him in this least expected of all his recent repertoire choices. Judging from the performance, the stratospheric twitterings as Strauss’s Nietzschean man prepares for transcendence hold a special charm, while the peculiarly unattractive vibrato applied by Chicago strings in the quasi-religious hymn shortly after the work’s opening chills the blood when the essential thrust behind it remains detached. As so often in Boulez’s recent performances, the cold and the compelling alternate in icy and white-heat gusts, always brilliantly executed and perfectly intoned once you adjust to the hard-edged Chicago sound. In the sweep of the ‘joys and passions’ sequence and the admirable control leading up to the midnight orgy, Boulez comes close to Strauss’s own no-nonsense but far from inexpressive conducting.
A heavier hand is needed, and applied with just the right degree of breadth and pressure, to the unusual companion piece. Mahler’s ‘Funeral Feast’ began life in 1888 and reached performance seven years later, in a rather different shape to the one Boulez conducts here, as one of the three movements from the Second Symphony Mahler premiered at Strauss’s instigation (this, of course, just before Zarathustra’s birth). That more familiar first movement we know and fear sheds two passages from the development and tightens up on tone-colour; but there are few enough performances of the original around for us to welcome Boulez’s vivid narrative. David Nice