Richard Strauss: Ein Heldebleben; Rosenkavalier-Suite

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons (Orfeo C 803 091 A)

6 January 2010 4 stars

Nelsons HeldenlebenThat the Munich-based record label Orfeo should have struck a deal with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its recently-installed, Latvian Music Director, Andris Nelsons, is testament to the orchestra's continued standing in the top-flight. And as Nelsons has already shown – not least with the orchestra's visit to the 2009 Proms – the orchestra plays magnificently for him. Here they follow up their first disc together, a Tchaikovsky programme, with two Strauss showpieces in performances that further bolster their reputation.

It's the sheer quality of the playing that makes the greatest impression in the first, the Rosenkavalier Suite, captured in wonderfully clear and airy sound. Nelsons admits in a booklet interview that he is yet to conduct the opera in the theatre and this is apparent in his approach to the suite, which is performed as an unashamed show-piece. In its bowdlerized suite form, there's justification for this approach, and it undoubtedly shows the Birmingham orchestra on outstanding form, but the way Nelsons lingers and elongates phrases and corners will not be to all tastes, and he almost grinds to a halt in the Presentation of the Rose. Nevertheless, he consistently displays a wonderfully refreshing ear for texture and captures the bittersweet lilt of the waltzes beautifully, while his players go some way to make up for the lack singers with their graceful, elegant phrasing.

Nelsons tries to hide his ambivalence towards the imperfect hodgepodge of the suite and clearly prefers the firmer ground of Ein Heldenleben, which benefits greatly from his breezy, flexible approach. Unsurprisingly, there's little of the Teutonic implacability that Karajan musters in his famous Berlin Philharmonic from the 80s, but what we have instead are clear, transparent textures and some impressively fleet-footed virtuosity, from the Birmingham winds in particular. Nelsons still manages to deliver the goods in some crashing climaxes – particularly in the battle scene – but it's the unusually spritely and quick-witted critics that stick in the mind, as well as the tenderly shaped reminiscences of the 'works of piece', as Strauss takes the listener on a sentimental jaunt through most of his back-catalogue. The contributions of Laurence Jackson on solo violin are oustanding, too, and he makes light of the role's technical difficulties to give an unusually tender and sympathetic account of the 'hero's companion'.

Heldenleben was recorded at three concerts in June 2009 and, as captured here, benefits greatly from the outstanding clarity of Orfeo's engineering, which with famous acoustic of Birmingham's Symphony Hall and Nelsons's ear, means we avoid the congestion that often comes with the thickest passages of Strauss's score. It all makes one wonder what Nelsons would make of Elektra or Salome; maybe he'll be among the tiny number who manage the elusive Mendelssohnian lightness Strauss half-jokingly asked for in those scores. I'm sure the chance to hear that will come sooner or later, and I for one hope that Orfeo are on hand to record their Alpine Symphony later this month. In the meantime this disc simply makes one impatient to hear the CBSO and Nelsons in any repertoire.

By Hugo Shirley