Jeremy Lee writes
Who on earth approved of this packaging? Who on earth dreamt of it? The cover looks fine, but when you open the album, you are greeted with a huge whiff of plastic and ink and a fluorescent (!) yellow disc, a color that resembles none other than urea. Disgusted, you retrieve the booklet and open it only to discover that there is not one page in the entire booklet that DOESN’T have a picture of shooting stars as the background. The print of the essay included is so small, and the color clashes with the background so violently, those who have poor eyesight would probably find it more relaxing to sit on a thumb tack than to read whatever is written. Oh yes, the aforementioned scent is actually the smell of the booklet which utilises plastic-coated glossy paper in its entirety. As I write, the booklet is placed on my table around 8 inches from my nose. I can still smell the plastic.
The issue, therefore, is taste, or rather, the lack of it. Whoever thought of this obviously has none. It also represents the great decline of Universal’s album presentation. We used to have the elegant yellow banner on DG full-priced releases: now only a few new albums bear it. We used to have booklets made out of white paper and insightful essays printed on them with black print, Times New Roman. We used to have beautiful cardboard slipcases and even more breathtaking cover art (cue Pollini’s Schubert sonatas, Boulez’s Mahler, etc, etc…). Now, they are all gone, and in its place we have ridiculous “Ameripacking” and “Europacking” that makes the album look like a cheap commodity rather than a document of an artist’s thoughts on a certain piece of music that you can take home, listen to seriously, and enjoy. Uggh.
Right. The performance. It’s mainly excellent, and that’s all down to the Berlin Phil which completely steals the show. Comparing the modern orchestra with Karajan’s in his 1970s recording and you’ll immediately hear a world of difference: the brass sound is now infinitely more rounded, the woodwinds are less shrill, and the strings are much less overwrought. They are still predominant and sound as lustrous as ever, but thankfully the excessive gloss cultivated by Herbie von K. is removed, and as a result they are much warmer, more translucent and forgiving. As a whole, in stark contrast to the opaqueness of the old sound, we are left with a much more opalescent, smooth, even burnished new sound. Gone, too, is Karajan’s immense megalomania, so now the orchestra doesn’t sound like a chromium-plated string orchestra with some wind backup.
In Also Sprach Zarathustra, the opening sunrise may be less impactful than Karajan’s, but it is still breathtaking in its naturalness, while the ensuing string chorale builds up inevitably with some gorgeously malleable cello playing and climaxes with the utmost sincerity, as opposed to Karajan’s Strings 101 approach in which he audibly stretches the strings to their physical limits. The Dance-Song, too, reveals quite a bit of detail (the tone of the trumpet fanfares are incredulously warm) and the solo work is very fine, even if Daniel Stabrawa can’t really be compared to Michael Schwalbé.
Till Eulenspiegel is also a fine performance, though one would want a bit more character from the E-flat clarinet (I wonder why the player was not credited in the booklet?) and much more brutal force from the brass in the beheading scene (the word “Solti” is all I have to add on this matter). Don Juan is pretty fine as well. The relatively slow tempi (18:39) doesn’t signify any lack of physicality or drama. While Solti and Kempe’s swifter speeds are more thrilling, in compensation we have myriads of orchestral detail and a really brooding ending. The timid percussion is about all the criticism I can lay on it. I should also single out the sonics, which are clear, well-balanced, moist and atmospheric–excellent, and one of DG’s best sounding recordings in recent years.
It’s been a while since we’ve heard such a ravishing sound from the Berliners (the string sound under Rattle isn’t always very pretty): a wholesome and polished profile that also manages to be intricately detailed and hued. Those who have Karajan’s famous recording and want to know how the sound of the orchestra has changed in 30 years need no further encouragement. Other listeners can also purchase with confidence. As for me, it’s a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.
Oh, I forgot to mention the conductor, who is unfortunately completely overshadowed by the orchestra. He is Gustavo Dudamel.
- Album name: Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra; Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche; Don Juan
- Performers: Gustavo Dudamel (conductor); Berliner Philharmoniker
- Label: DG 479 1041
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 69:40