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This wonderful issue has as much to do with conductor Andris Nelsons as it has with composer Richard Strauss. In view of this, I think some information on Nelson's life thus far would not be amiss. Indeed, Strauss's life is very well documented, and many are the sources to widen your knowledge on this giant of the twentieth century.
Andris Nelsons was born in Riga, Latvia, on 18 November 1978. His mother founded the first early music ensemble in Latvia, and his father was a choral conductor, cellist and teacher. Aged five, his mother and stepfather, a choral conductor, took him to a performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser, which Nelsons refers to as a profoundly formative experience. Quote: 'It had a hypnotic effect on me. I was overwhelmed by the music. I cried when Tannhäuser died. I still think this was the biggest thing that happened in my childhood.'
As a youth, Nelsons studied piano and took up the trumpet aged twelve. He also sang bass-baritone, with a special interest in early music, in his mother's ensemble. He studied for one summer at the Dartington International Summer School with Evelyn Tubb, and later served as a trumpeter with the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera. With time, Nelsons became enamoured with the baton, and his first studies were with Alexander Titov in St Petersburg. He also participated in conducting masterclasses with, among others, Neeme Järvi, and when an emergency in the trumpet section of the Oslo Philharmonic came about during an orchestra tour, he proved to be a more than capable substitute, bringing him to the attention of Mariss Jansons.
In 2003 Nelsons became principal conductor of the Latvian National Opera. Since then he has served as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and as chief conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, of which he still is. He also guest-conducted at the Met and Bayreuth. At present he is music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and, aged forty-three, Nelsons is one of today's foremost maestros of the baton.
Now to this musical mountain range of Richard Strauss that includes his greatest peaks in the symphonic poem and operatic genre, plus other miscellaneous orchestral pieces that are no less brilliant.
Listen — Richard Strauss: On the Summit (An Alpine Symphony)
(486 2040 track 55, 1:35-2:23) ℗ 2022 Boston Symphony Orchestra :
Andris Nelsons leads his two orchestras – the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus – in a groundbreaking transatlantic Richard Strauss project. This spectacular seven CD set presents three albums from each orchestra, but for the Festliches Präludium they join forces.
This marvellous anthology also features celebrated guest artists, pianist Yuja Wang (Burleske) and cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Don Quixote).
Listen — Richard Strauss: Burleske
(486 2040 track 19, 0:01-1:00) ℗ 2022 Gewandhaus zu Leipzig :
One must also mention Olivier Latry (organ), whose spirited playing contributed immensely to the successful recording of the Festliches Präludium made in November 2019 in Symphony Hall while the Gewandhaus was on tour in Boston.
Listen — Richard Strauss: Festliches Präludium
(486 2040 track 93, 0:02-0:57) ℗ 2022 Boston Symphony Orchestra :
In Nelsons' own words: 'This joint Strauss project is very dear to my heart. Throughout the past few years it has been a source of hope and comfort. The music of Richard Strauss means so much to me in its great emotional scope, its story-telling powers and significant influence on the development of classical music. I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to share it with our music communities in Boston and Leipzig and throughout the world. The collaborative efforts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhausorchester are a dream come true for me, and I will be forever thankful to my dear colleagues at both orchestras and at Deutsche Grammophon for all they have done to achieve this unique project. Our hope is that these recordings will bring much joy and inspiration.'
Both orchestras have been working closely together since 2018. Their alliance project involves collaborative ventures on an organisational as well as artistic level and includes exchange programmes for the musicians, educational initiatives, shared commissions and complementary programmes on both sides of the Atlantic. Among these initiatives are an annual Boston Week in Leipzig and a Leipzig Week in Boston.
If memory serves me well, I cannot recall of any such undertaking dedicated to the whole orchestral output of Richard Strauss that grouped such a programme into one release. Intoxicating melodies, daring harmonies, seething passions, audacious orchestration and, above all, an uncanny ability for characterization, which makes the many characters depicted so believable: for example the cello in Don Quixote.
Listen — Richard Strauss: Don Quixote’s Death (Don Quixote)
(486 2040 track 33, 3:04-3:52) ℗ 2022 Boston Symphony Orchestra :
These, mainly, are the treasureable qualities of Strauss' music, and Nelsons, despite stiff competition in this repertoire, draws superlative performances from both orchestras, who are on top form throughout. Indeed, the temptation was to hear all seven CDs at one go, but that was impossible. Still, pacing the music over a number of days did not detract from my enjoyment; on the contrary, it strengthened my belief that Richard Strauss is undoubtedly one of the great orchestral wizards of all time.
Listen — Richard Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils (Salome)
(486 2040 track 1, 9:13-10:09) ℗ 2022 Gewandhaus zu Leipzig :
This is a set for the ages, in luscious presentation and splendid sonics.
Copyright © 18 June 2022
CD INFORMATION: STRAUSS - ANDRIS NELSONS