i had many reasons for wanting to hear last night’s National Youth Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, not least of which was simply to hear NYO in action again. They are an astonishing orchestra, not merely able but mature, sensitive and abounding in talent; their rendition of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie a few years back is a particularly vibrant memory. Beyond this, i was intrigued to hear more music by German composer Iris ter Schiphorst, whose Aus Liebe had been one of the most striking works at the Arditti Quartet’s HCMF concert last year. But most of all, i wanted to hear Richard Strauss‘ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a work i’ve known intimately since my teenage years but which i’ve never, until yesterday, had the opportunity to hear performed live.
There’s something very strange about this; the rest of Strauss’ tone poems enjoy regular performances in the UK, both at national and local level (particularly Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan), but trying to find a performance of Also Sprach Zarathustra is almost impossible. In this respect, it’s completely the opposite of the other major work included in last night’s concert, Holst’s The Planets, a work so ubiquitous in the UK that it borders on the absurd. Hearing the Strauss and Holst in close proximity (a superb bit of concert programming) only makes the absence of Also Sprach in British concert halls all the more unfathomable. They have a lot in common, after all. Instrumentationally, both use a large orchestra, including an organ. i used to wonder whether it was the presence of the organ that put off orchestras from performing the Strauss, but the prevalence of the Holst in concert halls rules this out. Both works, too, are especially renowned for their openings: Strauss, due to the use of the Introduction in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Holst due to Mars, the Bringer of War being one of the most arrestingly immediate bits of orchestral music you’ll ever hear. Strauss’ Introduction, in fact, often pops up all by itself, usually in concerts of film music, so technically speaking, 100 seconds of the 35-minute work do actually get heard in the UK fairly regularly. But the 33 minutes of music that follow are among the finest Richard Strauss ever composed, and that really is saying something. i’ll actually nail my colours to the wall and say that, in my view, Also Sprach outclasses all of Strauss’ other tone poems, in terms of its breadth of imagination, dramatic range, narrative complexity, as well as its overwhelming lyrical scope and simply astonishing beauty. Another point of connection with the Holst is its drawing on imagery that reflects back on humanity’s character and nature. In Holst’s case, perhaps somewhat embarrassingly in hindsight, the inspiration is astrological, exploring the laughably arbitrary qualities supposedly imbued on the psyche due to the influence of the planets. Strauss turned to something altogether more lofty, Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel of the same name, a work that, among other things, looks to the possibility of humanity transcending itself, turning away from other-worldly religious myths towards a reclamation of earth and body, thereby becoming an übermensch. Maybe herein lies the reason for Strauss’ masterpiece being so neglected: people can get to grips with the noble idea of a hero’s life, the concepts of death and transfiguration, or enjoy the larking about of figures like Till Eulenspiegel, Don Juan and Don Quixote; but ask them to engage with the demanding philosophical humanist manifesto of Nietzsche, and perhaps inevitably heads are swiftly going to be scratched.
So NYO’s decision to tackle this great masterwork is therefore unusual, courageous and of huge benefit to audiences, the majority of whom, if they know anything of it beyond the first 100 seconds, will likely only have heard it on disc (apropos: Karajan’s 1983 digital recording is by far the best; ignore anyone claiming his 1973 version is superior – Also Sprach should never sound so polite as it does there, the ’83 recording fully embraces and realises the extremes of the score). Conductor Edward Gardner coaxed from them precisely what the work needs above all else: a supremely cogent musical argument where the assortment of component parts feel both fundamentally interconnected and part of a complex, slowly unfolding discourse. The more i hear Gardner in action, the more i appreciate the way he makes tempo melt in his hands, handling the elastic results in such a way that entirely new life and new details emerge. You’d think it wasn’t possible to do anything new with the Introduction, but the marked, measured delivery of the famous fanfare motif was surprising and made it all the more exciting. Just like Mahler, Strauss’ use of very large forces is deceptive, rarely allowed to let rip, favouring instead extended use of small numbers of players, and these were among the finest moments of the entire evening. The front string desks, in particular, were utterly superb, turning the slow-burning build-up of ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’, the sinewy counterpoint of ‘Das Grablied’ and the playful imitations partway through ‘Der Genesende’ into sublime episodes of chamber music, showing off just how able these musicians are in such exposed passages as these, and leader Millie Ashton deserves unqualified high praise for her gorgeous, note-perfect performance of the ‘Das Tanzlied’ solo.
The multitude of climaxes were impressive in the way they maintained clarity even in the most devastatingly full-throttle outbursts; nothing can prepare one for the eruption in ‘Der Genesende’ that threatens to rend the entire piece in two (one of the most violent tuttis in the history of orchestral music; Karajan’s 1983 version is beyond terrifying); even here, when one got the impression every single member of the orchestra wanted to punch the audience in the face, there was a lot more going on than a mere impulse towards blunt force trauma: clarity, purpose, persuasion. And courage, Gardner pausing dangerously long after this tutti, prompting some nervous wonderings whether someone might clap, thinking, 15 minutes early, that the end had come. It was a risk worth taking, one of innumerable throughout the performance; despite my long-term knowledge and understanding of Strauss’ score, new elements, details, moments of passing filigree, flashes of instrumentational sympathy and friction kept occurring, making the piece sound as new and strange as it must have sounded at its first performance 120 years ago. And while NYO very occasionally struggled (the opening of the ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ fugue is an intonational and rhythmic nightmare), what they conveyed above all was a cohesive demonstration of the utmost unity and dramatic conviction. In them, Richard Strauss found an overwhelmingly keen ambassador.
Their performance of the Holst was equally impressive in its fidelity, but i couldn’t help wondering to what extent the piece is still able to speak when it’s become so over-familiar. (Admittedly, it’s partly me: after all, i’m from the same town as Holst (Cheltenham) and have therefore probably heard The Planets more in my life than anyone reasonably should.) Don’t get me wrong, there’s much about it i deeply admire, chiefly Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, easily the most impressive movement of the entire sequence, which on this occasion exhibited a glorious, growing sense of grandeur and majesty. And Gardner’s elastic approach to the score was at times revelatory, as in the mid-point through Mars, following the first climax, when he slowed the tempo so much that it suddenly took on an altogether unexpected level of ominous menace, and even in Jupiter, pulling around the tempi such that the hotchpotch of ideas became active ingredients in a white-hot crucible. The work’s conclusion, which has some foreshadowing during the latter parts of Saturn, was spine-tingling, and although the members of the CBSO Youth Chorus lost their grip on the notes a few times, it was a convincingly moving progression from semi-stillness into the infinite. Until, that is, Colin Matthews’ execrable Pluto appeared as it does with such banal regularity these days, like a half-drunk gatecrasher turning up at a party just as everyone’s leaving, who then proceeds to piss himself in the hallway before passing out. This specimen of pastiche texture trash may be brief, but it never fails to destroy utterly the sublime narrative arch and dramatic culmination of Holst’s Planets, one of the most glaring missteps in new music of the last twenty years.
Iris ter Schiphorst’s new work Gravitational Waves opened the concert, and it established a further aesthetic link between all three pieces. Strauss’ music, particularly his approach to melody and orchestration, finds a familiar in the work of film composer John Williams, nowhere more so than his Star Wars scores. Holst’s Planets has infiltrated other areas of sci-fi, particularly Star Trek, establishing a very specific type of soundworld for suggesting space that continues today. And then there’s Hans Zimmer. Unfortunately, Gravitational Waves frequently brought to mind the aggressive, blank overkill of Zimmer’s horrible Interstellar score (arguably the nadir of his career). My hopes were high following the subtle effectiveness of last year’s Aus Liebe, but really none of that was anywhere to be found here, ter Schiphorst instead relying on familiar orchestral tropes to suggest dark primordiality, and including theatrical elements (the orchestra donned black and white masks, dividing them into a visual representation of the two black holes explored in the work) that lacked a convincing sonic parallel. Very disappointing.
The entire programme will be performed again at tonight’s Prom concert, and while you can take or leave Gravitational Waves and even The Planets, i want to implore everyone everywhere to give 35 minutes of your time for Also Sprach Zarathustra, one of the greatest of all orchestral scores, and an incomprehensible rarity in our concert halls. Perhaps on the strength of NYO’s wonderful interpretation, it might finally experience a belated, well-deserved renaissance.