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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898, original ending) [45:33]
Metamorphosen, AV 142 (1945) [26:44]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Fabio Luisi
rec. January 2007, Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany. DDD
SONY BMG 88697084712 [72:30]

Richard Strauss and the Dresden Staatskapelle have a venerable history together. The Staatskapelle premièred nine of his operas and the composer dedicated his Alpine Symphony to them. Their latest recording of the symphony is to be reviewed elsewhere on MusicWeb. Many distinguished recordings with Böhm, Kempe and Sinopoli set a standard up to which another Italian, Fabio Luisi, will want to live. Born in 1959 in Genoa, his association with the ‘Dresdeners’ began in 2002 at the Salzburg Festival. He became their Music Director and principal conductor in summer 2007.

Luisi is to record an extensive Strauss orchestral cycle with the Staatskapelle. There are three releases so far: this one, the aforementioned Alpine Symphony and Four Last Songs (Sony Classical, 88697141972) and then a Don Quixote (SK 93100). They make a very exciting start.

Of the Heldenleben Luisi is at great pains to point up the contrasts, the orchestral colour and at the same time the charm. Consciously mindful of  the acclaimed Kempe legacy, Luisi elicits from the orchestra feeling, momentum and all the necessary heroics which, if mishandled, can sound hollow. He shuns neither the bold - listen to the opening horn salvos - nor the touching: the sensitivity of the strings. The musical self-references in the ‘Friedenswerke’ section can be a bit of a gamble. Are they the composer’s, the Hero’s, music? Are they archetypes? Luisi gets it just right and convinces us that Strauss was a hero but a figure to whom bombast was alien.

Significantly, Luisi uses a little known finale to Ein Heldenleben. Instead of the Zarathustra fanfare, one of Strauss’s manuscripts has a ‘quiet ending’ where the violin - in this case, that of the Staatskapelle’s Konzertmeister, Kai Vogler - descends gently and pointedly to a pianissimo close. This somehow takes any sense of exaggeration out of the piece, making it less egotistical. Termed ‘original ending’ on this CD, it works well. This would seem to be the first Super Audio disc (SACD) recorded in this version.

For the sonic experience, this is also a superb recording. Remarkable is the spacious and warmly resonant acoustic of the Dresden Lukaskirche. The sound-stage is uncommonly wide and deep. The engineers have captured a real sense of space, which only enhances the expert and commanding playing throughout.

The battle is particularly thrilling. Ultimately, though, it’s Luisi’s interpretation and the playing of the Staatskapelle that count. Yes, it’s a persuasive, satisfying and substantial performance in which Luisi a Mediterranean warmth is brought to the melodies. Luisi shows a very romantic understanding of the music. At times, his gentle legato and rubato narrowly avoid the mannered. But they do avoid it and few listeners will be disappointed with this carefully conceived and confidently executed account of Strauss’s early masterpiece. He has something new to say about a very familiar composition and repeat listenings reveal it in a new light … a clever balance between the discipline of the music and its rhetoric. First class.

Luisi’s ‘loving’ approach to Strauss’s string writing is even more evident, even more successful in his account of Metamorphosen. It too will linger with you for some time after the last, haunting theme has vanished. This is due, not to maudlin or sentiment but to a poise and detachment that are as refreshing as they are effective. Strauss was over 80 when he finished Metamorphosen. It is the composer’s response, with untrammelled grief and regret, to the destruction in the Second World War of many places in which his works had been performed. This is not done in any vain sense. His greater and more pressing despair was for the loss of the culture which meant so much to him and to others.

Luisi makes this Metamorphosen not a requiem or a lament but a quiet, knowing reflection. Surely – with the reference to the defiant Eroica - that’s a sustainable decision. It certainly works. This interpretation is clear, warm, exciting, generous and above all very convincing. The reasons for the sorrow come from within the music rather than from an assumption that one knows how sorrow ‘works’; that’s too easy.

All in all, these are responsive, contemporary readings of familiar works whose finer and more beautiful points are offered in a fresh light. Luisi steers a perfect middle course between hammer and feather. He chooses not a brush but a high-definition camera to represent what Strauss was intent on communicating. 

The accompanying booklet is adequate - though imperfectly proofed. Unfortunately it’s printed in colours that make it hard to read in places: Why do designers do that … beige and chocolate background? It almost goes without saying that the recording is outstanding. Acoustic clarity, depth and dynamic all work to support very persuasive readings of these introspective works adopting an approach that avoids the fanciful and favours the precise. 

So, if this is indicative of what’s to come in the series, it’s certainly promising. The music on this CD begins with a flourish and ends with a truly engaging sense of a strength and commitment that lies right at the very heart of the music’s essence. This is a recording which is likely to become a favourite for Strauss lovers and should certainly make converts. 

Mark Sealey 




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