Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben (1898) [47:32]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Im Sommerwind (1904) [15:02]
Robert Chen (solo violin on Ein Heldenleben)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 4-6 December 2008 (Strauss); 23-25, 28 April 2009 (Webern)
CSO RESOUND CSOR 901 1002 [62:23]

Along with his fine performances of music by Gustav Mahler and Anton Bruckner, in recent seasons Bernard Haitink has also executed work by Richard Strauss and Anton Webern. Strauss’s late tone-poem Ein Heldenleben received an exemplary reading by Haitink in December 2008, and the recording made from those performances is evidence of his mastery of the score. Of particular interest is the fine reading of the violin solo at the conclusion of the work by Robert Chen. That stated, the contrasts Strauss composed within the score are audible in this recording, with details, like the solo violin not only emerging easily, but fitting well into the larger textures.

Haitink’s tempos also support the sections of the piece, and his phrasing allows the lines to be heard distinctly. This clear, lucid approach is audible from the opening, which is inviting for its nuanced phrasing, subtle dynamic shadings, and balance of tone colors. With regard to the latter, the CSO’s woodwind section is particularly effective in the second section, “The Hero’s Adversaries”. A similar sensitivity to color may be found in the brass (especially those off-stage) in “The Hero’s Battlefield”. Yet for an overall idea of the sensitive ensemble, “The Hero’s Works of Peace” merits attention because of the ways in which the softer sections remain full-voiced and compelling, as Strauss shifts the tone colors that are essential to conveying his extra-musical ideas in this section. The chamber-music-like sonorities which Strauss uses to fine effect in the middle sections of many of his tone poems emerge here distinctively, with his responsive leadership giving fine shape to some of the contrapuntal passages. Elsewhere, the atmospheric quality of the low strings is reproduced nicely, without risking any distortion in the aggregate sound. Moreover, the quotations and reminiscences of Strauss’s other works are clear and appropriately prominent when they occur, and Haitink is perceptive to blend those elements expertly into the structure of this outstanding reading of this important symphonic work.

Along with the clarity in his interpretation of Ein Heldenleben is a sense of restraint in some of the fanfares. Haitink’s precision is remarkable, but the excitement that emerges with some conductors - at times at the expense of accuracy - is absent from some passages. This is a small point, but evident at various points in the recording, as in fanfares that usher the section entitled “The Hero’s Companion”. Some conductors might take some risks in “The Hero’s Battlefield”, though, and the solid clarity of Haitink’s reading is useful when he can bring out the various layers of sound that are part of Strauss’s score. This also allows Haitink to invest the score with a welcome intensity.

Also included on this disc is Haitink’s 2009 reading of Webern’s early tone poem Im Sommerwind, a work that was never heard during the composer’s lifetime, but one which has been brought into the concert performance in recent decades. Composed just a few years after Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Webern’s youthful tone poem echoes both the extended chromatic harmony of the time and also some aspects of the young composer’s own style. Since Webern had not yet arrived at the serial concision with which he is associated, the style of Im Sommerwind exists between those two worlds. It is closer, perhaps, to Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande (completed 1903, premiered 1905). In this piece, Haitink gives full rein to the rich harmonies, allowing the tonal space to resound fully. The sonorities along merit attention in this richly performed reading. In this piece Webern took his cue from a poem by Bruno Wille, which describes the various perceptions of a summer day; it is, in a sense a series of impressions influenced by the poem. Here the work succeeds not only through its musical structure, but also as a result of the timbres the young composer used in this impressive piece. It benefits from the sensitive ensemble of the CSO, an aspect that is present in this fine recording. Haitink has given the work clear shape in presenting the structure of this engaging, but less familiar composition. It complements nicely the more familiar music of Ein Heldenleben.

James L. Zychowicz

Haitink invests the score with a welcome intensity.