Debussy Jeux Strauss Also Sprach Roth LSO0833

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Jeux (1912-13)
London Symphony Orchestra/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, November 2018 (Strauss), January 2018 (Debussy), Barbican Hall, London
LSO Live LSO0833 [50]

At the end of François-Xavier Roth’s performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra, it’s pretty clear which culminating end-point the music had been heading towards all along. The Übermensch’s dance is a terrifically persuasive Viennese Waltz which dazzles and galumphs simultaneously. There is a lovely twinkle to the LSO woodwinds, and the heft that Roth injects into the tutti passages gives the dance some echt-Viennese Schwung. Then the chimes of the midnight bell cut the dance off as it reaches its most cosmic level, and the music dissipates wonderfully into those binary final chords that seem to pull each other in opposite directions and end the piece on such a wonderful question mark. Roth and the orchestra shape the piece as if it’s moving in a straight line towards that point, and it’s a fitting culmination.

I wasn’t so sure about the journey there, however. Until that final dance, Roth’s shaping of Strauss’s poetry feels bitty and episodic. That’s partly thanks to his choices of tempi, which are faster than usual and sometimes feel rushed: the opening sunrise is nippy to the point of being cursory. Elsewhere, climaxes aren’t so well-prepared, and the rapid swirl through the “Joys and Passions” means that the climactic collapse doesn’t quite hit home. The playing is excellent throughout, of course, and the recording is good, if slightly more boxy than I’ve come to expect from LSO Live. On the whole, though, this Zarathustra isn’t consistently strong enough to compete with other greats, most notably from Andris Nelsons in both Birmingham and Leipzig. If you really must have Roth then his 2013 SWR recording from Freiburg is a much better bet.

Jeux works better, though its eyebrow-raising subtleties make it an odd choice of companion piece for Strauss’s vision of the universe. Roth understands it very well, though, something we should expect from a conductor whose Pelléas was so warmly received. I haven’t heard his earlier recording of Jeux with Les Siècles, but this LSO performance understands the wit and lightness of Debussy’s score without losing a sense of either its narrative or its colour. There’s always a twinkle to this music, and that comes through in the wind tone which is sometimes sultry and sometimes light-hearted, producing a clear line of music against the shimmering curtain of the string sound. Roth is also very sensitive to the many changes in tempi, reminding us that this is, after all, dance music. You need no narrative to grasp the contours of this unfolding score, however, and Roth gets the balance of musical colour and unfolding tension just right.

That’s not enough to make this disc essential, however. You’ll find better performances of both works elsewhere (I was very taken with the RSNO’s 2012 Jeux, for example) so I suspect this disc might be more for those who attended the concerts at which they were recorded, and it doesn’t help that the running time of less than 50 minutes can hardly be described as generous.

Simon Thompson

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