This first recording from Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with its current music director Jonathan Nott is an auspicious release in what is the year of the former’s centenary. Not only does it highlight some of the ensemble’s best playing in recent years, but the very nature of this coupling is intriguing and provocative in its drawing attention to the nature of ‘melody’ as a determining concept in three otherwise very different pieces. Typical, indeed, of Nott’s enterprising approach to programming across a career now extending over a quarter-century.
With its fanciful scenario of children’s ‘coming of age’ in a Viennese cake-shop, Richard Strauss’s ballet-score Schlagobers (Whipped Cream) was coolly received at its premiere in 1924 and seldom revived. Even the Suite is currently represented only by a Chandos recording by the Detroit SO and Neeme Järvi (Nott’s predecessor at the OSR), but this new account is far preferable in its stylish and lucid rendering of the eight-movement sequence where Strauss revisits the idiom of his Symphonia Domestica with an oblique nod to that of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. His own music may lack the latter’s melodic appeal, but there is much that gives pleasure – not least a suave ‘Whipped Cream Waltz’ and ‘General Dance’ which brings proceedings to an uproarious close. Those having previously avoided this work ought to give it a try.
Jeux (1912) inhabits a very different world aesthetically. It is also indelibly associated with OSR founder Ernest Ansermet, not that the orchestra back then ever sounded this good. The failure of Debussy’s ‘poème dansé’ as ballet obscured its greatness as music and, from the outset, Nott underlines the latter being in constant transition as it pursues a speculative and ominous course, capturing an intuitive sense of unfolding in what is a bewitching performance.
Finally, to Ligeti and Melodien (1971) – interestingly, the only one among its composer’s orchestral works which Nott did not record as part of his contribution to The Ligeti Project, perhaps because the piece is more modest in its scoring. Not that there is anything small-scale or understated about the present account, which vividly conveys this music’s fluid unfolding over stratified layers of activity whose methodical and intensifying progress is from abundant activity to unified austerity; placing emphasis on melodic line as characterises this stage in its composer’s gradual reassessment of musical tenets. Previous versions have brought out the music’s sonic iridescence, but none has conveyed its almost kaleidoscopic transformation of timbre and texture with this precision and deftness of touch.
Throughout these recordings, the SACD sound evinces admirable depth and perspective, and there is a thoughtful if not wholly convincing booklet note. Further projects between Nott, the OSR and Pentatone are planned (not least couplings of Pelleas and Melisande by Schoenberg and Sibelius, and one devoted to Mahler’s song-cycles), and if these build upon the quality of playing and the interpretative insight which characterise this inaugural release, then the partnership between orchestra and conductor looks certain to become a potent as well as rewarding one.