Strauss early and late, with panache and precision

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(c) Marco Borggreve

Conductor Andris Nelsons

Review: Orchestre de Paris, Andris Nelsons conducting; pianist Michaela Ursuleasa. Salle des Concerts, Cité de la Musique, Paris

Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons’ intriguing program with the Orchestre de Paris on Oct. 29 featured two works with philosophical overtones by Richard Strauss, the late “Metamorphosen” for 23 strings and the opulently orchestrated “Also sprach Zarathustra,” written nearly 50 earlier.

“Metamorphosen” (1945) inevitably brings to mind Schoenberg’s 1899 “Transfigured Night,” not only in its transformational form but also in its broadly romantic spirit and its use of strings alone. But in truth, across its 30-minute expanse, Strauss’ richly contrapuntal rumination, inspired by the calamity of World War II, reaches back much further, to the deeply personal reflections of late Beethoven

Nelsons, the 32-year-old music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony, allowed the music its full dramatic flowering, from an initial lyrical transparency to an ultimate solemnity of funereal weight and portent. Indeed, in its final pages, the “Metamorphosen” makes several fragmentary, subsurface references to the tragic slow movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

The Orchestre de Paris strings responded with a performance of warmth, pliancy and precision. The profound sadness evoked in the music’s dark conclusion was more than compelling; it was breath-stopping.

The full orchestra showed its brilliant colors in a virtuosic turn through “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Strauss’ tone-poem on Nietzsche’s grandiose philosophical novel. Yet, despite the composer’s evocative “chapter” headings – “Of Great Longing,” “Of Joys and Passions,” etc. – the work can be construed (much like “Heldenleben” or “Don Quixote”) as a purely musical adventure of full of marvelous surprises and charm.

That pretty well sums up Nelsons’ imaginative and authoritative account, in which the Paris strings, winds and brasses provided as rich and subtle a palette as any conductor might wish for.

Between these Straussian bookends fell Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, with the Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa delivering a performance that transmuted this 18th century composer into one closer in form and content to Liszt.

The egregious histrionics of Ursuleasa’s playing – leaning into the audience a la Victor Borge, rising from the bench a la Jerry Lee Lewis – were matched by the extremities of her interpretation with its sudden dynamic leaps and free-wheeling rubato. The pianist has technique aplenty. It’s just that she clearly prefers doing Mozart her way, whereas I’m stuck preferring something more akin to his.

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.