STRAUSS Don Juan. Ein Heldenleben
These two discs present two prolific but very different conductors with orchestras they each took over at the start of the 2015 16 season. Paavo Järvi’s represents the first instalment of a Strauss series with his Japanese band, with two further discs planned; Gergiev’s is the third release (following Mahler and Bruckner) on the Munich Philharmonic’s new label.
The first differences to note are primarily technical. RCA’s sound from Suntory Hall is outstanding, and a great deal firmer and clearer than the disappointingly washy, spongy engineering we get from Munich, in which close miking picks up plenty of Gergiev’s accompanying swish-swoosh vocalisations, as well as the bowing of Lorenz Nasturica-Hershcowici’s violin solos in Ein Heldenleben.
Gergiev’s conducting is similarly short on detail: several passages he ploughs through with his head, one imagines, buried in the score as his players hang on; elsewhere, such as in the slow final pages of Heldenleben or the first love scene of Don Juan, he borders on the indulgent. On large-scale terms the performances are not unsuccessful, I suppose, and there’s certainly plenty of what one might charitably call edge-of-the-seat excitement. Particularly in Heldenleben, though, one starts to feel that his musicians have been left to get on with it – which, it should be admitted, they do with admirable skill.
In the larger work, too, there are some big moments where Gergiev just doesn’t take his time to make the most of the score’s rhetorical effects: paradoxically, his performances are considerably slower than Järvi’s but tend to feel rushed. Further quick comparison with Järvi and his well-drilled players takes you to a completely different level in terms of execution, less perhaps in terms of basic notes than of the care with which they are placed in context.
Järvi’s Don Juan is thrillingly precise and pinpoint, and characterised by a real momentum and Schwung. The main virtues of his Heldenleben are clarity, control and impeccable orchestral discipline, all the more impressive given the fact that these are live recordings (the recording dates for the Gergiev, incidentally, coincide with three concerts featuring both works but the performances are not described as live).
Järvi rattles through the opening statement with plenty of swagger and a real skip in his step, and his critics are brilliantly pointed (Gergiev’s are a rather dishevelled lot by comparison). There’s a real sense of the Hero being characterised, too: clearly reluctant to rouse himself for battle, sleepy in the Works of Peace. Fuminori Maro Shinozaki’s Companion is nicely relaxed and considered, though it’s a shame something couldn’t be done about his tremulous final note. The last ounce of grandeur and weight is perhaps missing but this is still an account, along with its excellent coupling, that’s well worth hearing.