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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben – Symphonic Poem Op.40 (1898) [47.24]
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme – Suite for Orchestra Op.60 (1917) [34.23]
Guy Braunstein (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, October 2005. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 3 39339 2 [81.57]


Rattle’s Heldenleben shares with his recent recording of the first Piano Concerto of Brahms (see review), indeed much of his recent work, a tendency to highlight certain passages. The result is a draining away of symphonic tension. There’s something almost defiantly sentimental about his use of this kind of sculpting that proves, in the long run, provocatively unsatisfying. It’s this promotion of incidental beauty over tensile strength and intellectual sinew that leaves me uneasy. It’s not necessarily the lingering in itself, rather it’s the feeling that such moments are being unduly drawn to our attention as epiphanies in themselves.

In a garrulous and cocksure work such as this these kinds of elasticities are not really necessary. Kempe may seem to underplay the opening movement, The Hero, but his recording grows, as a result, in cumulative power. That said, his is not a first recommendation of mine despite its many felicities. Amongst Rattle’s predecessors both Reiner (RCA - see reviews) and Beecham (EMI – not currently available so far as I’m aware) show how to shape and control Heldenleben without tinkering with it. The Hero’s Adversaries lacks Beecham’s rapier incision and the subsequent swooning is not convincing – Rattle seeming to operate almost on a binary level of response, never quite pitching the feeling correctly. The swooping melodrama at 2.17 sounds to me self-regarding.

The Battle scene is fine however, Rattle generating considerable heat, more so than Beecham in sheerly visceral terms. I am still left feeling that, for all the opulence of Rattle’s response and for all the showy drama, the ominous character of this scene is the better conveyed by a practised Straussian such as Beecham or indeed Reiner. The final scene seems curiously detached, and lacking in feeling. Beecham conveys expressive warmth without ostentation. Reiner proves as ever a master of structure and long terms goals. For all the sheen even Karajan makes more of it.

None of this is helped by the recording. The piece was taped in concert and the result is a mess. The acoustic is very swimmy. The balance is askew at important points. Even when things are going well on the rostrum, as in much of the Battle scene, things are not well in the control room – there’s a crucial lack of definition throughout. It’s hard to mitigate the problems.

The coupling is Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The pressure is off for this facetious if affectionate piece of near neo-classicism. With a smaller band and a reasonably balanced piano the myriad recording afflictions of the companion work are not so apparent, not least because this is a studio recording. The playing is stylish and neat and when things run smoothly, as in Lully’s Minuet, they run ravishingly. It makes one wonder why they can’t run like this more often especially when The Fencing Master suffers a bout of Rattle-isms, those rubato-rich moments that don’t add up.  

The playing time is right to the limit, eighty-two minutes. But with a very problematic recording and a performance to match I’d direct you, in a very crowded field despite the coupling, to the performances already noted. There are plenty of contemporary readings to choose as well, Jansons to the fore, but Reiner has recorded both (available separately). A master Strauss conductor such as he is a guide for the decades.

Jonathan Woolf


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