In a blaze of late 19th-century music

The context in which I discovered this recording is a bit peculiar, and probably explains the strong impression it has left me since then. Last Monday when I had just returned home after a long day of teaching to high school students, the first images of the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris on fire invaded my TV screen. After an hour spent watching this old lady engulfed in flames as well as the heroic struggle of the firefighters to save her from total destruction under the astonished gaze of journalists and millions of French, I needed to listen to music to find some solace in the midst of this tragedy. It was at that moment that I discovered that this recording of Strauss’s « Thus Spake Zarathustra » and « A Hero’s Life » poems by Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra was available to download, and as I started listening, I was seized by the confrontation between this music dating back to the end of the 19th century and the images of the conflagration of an almost millenary cathedral.

In 1896 Richard Strauss was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel « Thus Spake Zarathustra » when he composed a symphonic poem divided into 9 parts
highlighting the main stages in the philosophical journey of the prophet Zoroaster. It is a spectacular work, vast and quite dense, with an orchestration showing the influence on the Munich composer of the program music of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, as Andrew Mellor explained it in the booklet accompanying this disc. Petrenko’s interpretation both fascinated and puzzled me, and apparently I’m not the only one who has been perplexed by this Zarathustra.

Clearly the conductor listened to the great performers of the past (Reiner, Steinberg, Karajan …), since this is what he is used to doing before recording a piece, but he seems to have decided to move away from a certain interpretative tradition that one could describe as « heroic » to take an interest in the strangeness of this work crossed by flashes and moments of stasis, which gives the impression of a kind of permanent digression, but constantly moving, as if a musical idea called another, a sound leading to another sound, advancing and retreating, as a kind of permanent improvisation. The questions posed by Nietzsche’s work therefore remain open and can not find a resolution, as a critic who attended one of the concerts performed at time the album was made in November 2016 (which also raises questions about the delay between the recording and the release of the album). Eventually we really have this impression expressed by the critic of the creation of a world ex-nihilo. This search for an alchemy of sound is also underlined by a very strong contrasts in the sound volume between the loudest and the quietest passages, which can give the impression that there is a problem with the sound recording, but I think it’s result the conductor was aiming at, as I have noticed this kind of contrasts in his concerts. However, these contrasts are wrought so organically that they never sound as a superficial effect made to impress the listener, but rather as a intrisic part of the conductor’s vision.

Two years after his musical exploration of Zarathustra, Richard Strauss wrote another symphonic poem, but this time he chose himself as the hero of this orchestral piece. It is a work that seems more unequivocal, as if swept away in a unique lyrical and heroic gesture. As the French blogger David Le Marrec noticed it in one of his texts on recent album releases, this « Heldenleben » highlights the qualities of Petrenko as a conductor:

« His ability to envelop these large frescoes in a constant lyricism (not the maple flask that drips on the big melodies, but really a constant momentum, a surge of sap that organically irrigates the whole work), the quality of balance between the different section allows the listerner to enjoy all aspects of the experience, from the great machine to the luxurious details that Strauss gratifies us with – you can not hear everything on the record, or even at the concert. However, he strives to make these details as present as possible. »

Moreover, as he also notices, Petrenko has developed a particular sound with the Norwegian orchestra, of which he has been the musical director for several years in parallel with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra. This orchestral sound is a mix between Petrenko’s identity as a Russian conductor and the Nordic identity of the orchestra itself, with on the one hand the rather dense sound of the strings and on the other the slightly acid sound of the woodwinds, which creates a quite striking contrasts between the low deep sound of the strings and the lighter and sometimes more strident sound of the woodwinds. In this recording, Petrenko manages to lift Strauss’s music in a flurry of colors and textures, while maintaining a great clarity in the balance of the different sections, while successfully creating beautiful moments full of softness and tenderness, but without neither grandiloquence nor pathos. Among the excellent musicians of the Oslo Orchestra, Elise Båtnes, the first concertmaster of the orchestra, is absolutely remarkable in the violin solos.

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