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Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, February 2011

STRAUSS, R.: Metamorphosen / Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme / RAVEL, G.: Piano Concerto (Grimaud, V. Jurowski) (NTSC) 3078738
STRAUSS, R.: Metamorphosen / Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme / RAVEL, G.: Piano Concerto (Grimaud, V. Jurowski) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 3078734

Jurowki conjures up some fine playing in this, encouraging his section leaders to play up the humour of the score (“Das Diner”, for instance), but the best of the disc is the opening work, an impassioned, heartfelt account of Strauss’s Metamorphosen, his “study for 23 solo strings” composed in 1946. Phrases are lovingly sculpted, individual lines translucent, with Jurowski firmly in control of the work’s arc. The ending is magically handled and truly affecting.

Scott Noriega
Fanfare, January 2011

The idea of programming Strauss and Ravel together at first might make one wonder about the thematic conception behind the program. These two composers were contemporaries—Strauss was born nine years before Ravel, and died 12 years after—but they each developed their own, quite different and personal sound world. There were also common tendencies. For one, they both were interested in formal structures of the past, counterpoint, and vivid yet transparent ideas on orchestration. Upon listening to their music, one is struck at first at how different they sound, yet upon re-listening, one begins to hear these similarities and relish them.

The first piece on the program, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, was written as a reaction to the destruction of many of the great cities of Germany after the allied bombings of 1945, especially those centers that contained personal memories for Strauss—namely Munich and Dresden. It is heavy in meaning and is quite stark in its constant and dense string sonority. Yet it is a piece that, when one truly follows Strauss as he weaves the 23 independent lines of music together, becomes all the more translucent. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe does a good job of molding these individual strands and weighing them against each other. They impart a chamber-like feeling to the music, unlike many larger orchestras, without losing the overall grave meaning behind the music. This is a fine performance, one that I will come back to, and one that will complement other, even more dense, performances.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto has the complete opposite effect. It is light-hearted, fun, and spirited. It was written in the final years of the composer’s life, and was dedicated to the pianist Marguerite Long, who also premiered the piece. In Hélène Grimaud’s reading, she brings a drive to the outer movements, infusing them with abundant energy. She has a good rhythmic sense, and shows that she not only can handle the music’s challenges, but that she can relish them. She brings a sense of enjoyment to the music, making it palpable for us. I have heard more tender moments in the Adagio assai, yet Grimaud brings a wonderful sense of simplicity, which is far preferable to the overt sentimentality that detracts from some readings. She doesn’t necessarily sparkle in the lighter-textured moments—the rippling cascades of gentle arpeggiations or the scalar runs in the Presto, for example—but she does bring that exuberant sense of joy and an excellent momentum. The orchestra, under Vladimir Jurowski, accompanies well, playing off of Grimaud, and equally having fun with the whole.

The program concludes with Strauss’s Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme Suite. Originally composed as incidental music to Hoffmansthal’s adaptation of Molière’s play of the same name, its story of origin is tied to the troublesome one of Ariadne auf Naxos. Both of these works were premiered at the same time, and both were unsuccessful. Strauss later rewrote Ariadne auf Naxos, adding a Prologue and recomposing much of the opera proper, and it is this version that is most often performed today. Strauss, around 1920, also rearranged the incidental music to Le Bourgeouis Gentilhomme as a suite for orchestra, and it is through this adaptation that most people have come to know this delightful music. This music, especially, seems perfectly suited to these forces, as almost every member of the orchestra is given a moment to shine; and shine they do. From the spirited opening of the piano in the overture to the first scene, the lilting clarinets in the prelude to the second scene, to the melancholic oboe solos and lovely singing cello solo, both in Das Diner, the players savor this music, and as a consequence so do we!

The sound is excellent. The cameras are a bit busy for my taste, constantly moving from one member of the orchestra to another, though this always seems to be a major issue with video recordings. The question that sometimes must be asked, though, is when is enough enough? If these matters are not a concern, then this DVD provides an hour and a half of pleasant listening. All in all, a 21st-century view of some 20th-century staples.

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, September 2010

Metamorphosen is one of the supreme masterpieces of music, and this performance is fully worthy of it. Watching Jurowski’s curiously stiff-wristed baton technique, and bearing in mind how much of the time he spends looking down at the score, one marvels again at the almost telepathic capacity a fine conductor has of communicating his intentions to the orchestra. Everything is clear, the gestures precise and far from histrionic. He paces the work perfectly, not too slow—though I can take this work very slow indeed if need be—and the closing quotation from Beethoven’s Eroica is beautifully placed. Textures in the often highly complex counterpoint are transparent throughout, and the preparation and execution of the more lively central section avoids any suggestion of panic or chaos. The whole performance is characterised by immense sadness tempered with stoicism and the implacable solidity of the human spirit. No praise is too high for the players, here and throughout the concert. One is lost in admiration for these superb musicians, some impassive before the camera, others less so, yet all getting on with their work with professionalism and efficiency despite being clearly moved themselves.

The second work in the programme brings a change of mood. Ravel’s concerto, and more particularly the whip snap with which it opens, was the work that turned this listener on to twentieth-century music a (short) lifetime ago. Its attraction has never dimmed, and I hope it never will for Hélène Grimaud. She must have played it hundreds of times, but she was clearly very much engaged with it on this occasion. She is quite free and rhapsodic in the slower passages of the first movement, with a fair amount of expressive rhythmic freedom which might become tiresome for some listeners when the apparent spontaneity wears off. That said, she is masterful at creating and maintaining the classical atmosphere necessary in this work, so difficult when even jazz is brought in to the game. The slow movement is beautifully played. The tendency of some pianists, in the interests of expression, not to synchronise the hands, is here carried to quite an extreme, and there is an instant during her accompaniment to the long cor anglais solo where she seems to want the wind soloist to move on rather. The wind players, by the way, acquit themselves as wonderfully well as do their bowing colleagues, particularly in this slow movement where many of the principals have at least a moment of glory. The finale rarely fails and, at a cracking pace, provokes the usual audience reaction here. Jurowski proves an outstanding accompanist, and whilst still restrained both in gesture and facial expression, to the extent that a reassuring nod seems a major event, every gesture counts. It’s instructive to identify the moments when he turns for visual contact with the soloist, as well as those, more frequent, when Grimaud looks up towards him. Hers is an enigmatic stage presence, rather sombre, rather inscrutable, with very little in the way of typical pianistic histrionics and seemingly uncertain in the moments after the final chord. She has no need to worry, though: the audience clearly enjoyed the performance, and the orchestra, too, applaud warmly.

The concert closes with the music Strauss composed for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Jurowski conducts this work from a tiny score, and seems to want more eye contact with his players than before. He is clearly enjoying himself, but his conducting style remains economical and deeply serious. There is an almost dance-like elegance about many of his gestures, even when he lowers his arms after the final note of a piece. The performance is as fine as that of the two previous works, and is greeted with a slow handclap, a sign of appreciation in France.

The concert has been filmed with great musical understanding. Close-ups are invariably instructive, and only rarely is the viewer frustrated by hearing something that cannot be seen. The sound quality is excellent, though the piano seems a little forward in the overall balance, and seeing an orchestral soloist has one suspecting that he or she has been artificially brought forward too. The titles of the individual pieces of the final work appear on the screen. There are no extras, but you can watch a few trailers of other films, some of them quite enticing.

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2:13:44 AM, 3 June 2015
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