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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben (1899) [44:23] *
Metamorphosen (1945) [28:55]
Raymond Kobler (violin)*; David Krehbiel (horn)*
San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 1994. DDD
DECCA LONDON 436 596-2 [73:28]

This is an excellent disc, and Arkiv is to be congratulated on returning it to circulation.
Herbert Blomstedt made some fantastic records during his San Francisco years. His incredible Nielsen cycle dates from this period, as does his subtle Sibelius set, only recently boxed up and reissued by Decca. He began his excellent Hindemith series at this time too. That series has been reissued as a Decca Trio, and Universal should do the same with Blomstedt's trio of Strauss discs that date from the same period this one, his Alpensinfonie (also available from Arkiv) and his Also Sprach Zarathrustra. Until they do, Arkiv fills the gap with this on-demand disc.
From the opening growl of the double basses, you sense that this is a great performance, and one that is brilliantly recorded. The opening portrait of the hero has swagger and tenderness, and plenty of ear catching detail from the orchestra. There is mystery as the hero starts his work, and tenderness in the portrait of the hero's companion. Raymond Kobler paints her as skittish and flighty but never nagging. His sweet tone is quite beguiling. The aural perspective for the offstage trumpet fanfare before the battle is superb, and the dark swirling of strings that follows most mysterious. Perhaps the battle could build more, but the flood of orchestral detail is superbly realised and again, the lower voices are distinctive. The Don Juan moment arrives with vigour and the final bars glow.

Kempe is more flexible in his tempi, but with Blomstedt as with no other conductor not even Reiner you hear everything but lose nothing in warmth. Those low horn parts and counter melodies in the lower brass and woodwind register here as never before.
The virtuosity of the San Francisco orchestra is also very impressive. The brass in particular are simply superb. Michael Tilson Thomas gets a lot of credit for the sound of his band, but recordings like this remind us how lucky he was to inherit a superbly trained ensemble from Blomstedt. True, they cannot quite match the darker colours and sonorities of Kempe's Dresden Staatskapelle, but the sheer energy and commitment of their playing and Blomstedt's direction are persuasive on their own account.
I would not expect that anyone will want to set aside their favourite historical accounts for this disc, and certainly Kempe and Reiner will remain at the top of my Heldenleben playlist, but Blomstedt is fully worthy to sit alongside them. He and his orchestra play this music for all it is worth and, with the help of the Decca engineers, he allows you to hear all of the detail in this lush score without sacrificing anything in commitment or interpretation. The Decca engineers really do deserve a lot of the credit for the success of this disc, with digital sonics in the Culshaw tradition bright and clear, allowing the lower brass to cut through the strings without overwhelming them.
In short, this is the best modern Heldenleben I have heard, certainly more energised than the equally well recorded Previn on Telarc. Though it may yield ever so slightly to Kempe's and Reiner's classic accounts interpretatively, it outclasses both in the quality of its sound. If you like your Richard Strauss vigorous and in full technicolour sound (as it is scored), then you will want to hear this performance.
Metamorphosen is an unusual coupling for Ein Heldenleben though not a unique one and it offers an interesting juxtaposition of the younger man's self confidence with the older man's reflections, doubts and nostalgia. Blomstedt's gives a loving, flowing performance, and the San Francisco strings bring brightness, intensity and precise ensemble to an account that again compares very well with the old catalogue favourites. Again, Kempe and the Dresden band are darker and more brooding, but Blomstedt's account is still a serious contender. The clarity of the recording actually gets in the way a little here, though, with some audible breaths from the string players closest to the microphones registering at moments of intimacy and intensity. I only noticed this when listening through headphones and it is not overly distracting, certainly not enough to detract from an excellent performance on an excellent disc.
Tim Perry


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