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Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949) Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898)[47:29]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945) Im Sommerwind* (1904) [15:03]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, 4-6 December 2008 and *23-25, 28 April 2009. DSD
CSO-RESOUND CSOR 901 1004 [62:32]

Experience Classicsonline


At the end of the 2009/10 season Bernard Haitink, Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2006, will give way to Riccardo Muti. Muti will become the orchestra’s tenth Music Director from the 2010/11 season. Maestro Haitink has bridged the gap between the directorships of Daniel Barenboim and Muti with no little distinction. The launch of the orchestra’s own label, CSO-Resound, has taken place during his time and so, quite naturally, the bulk of the own-label recordings to date have featured Haitink as conductor. I’ve heard most of them and those I have heard have been marked by Haitink’s customary distinction. This latest release, which features performances given in 2008 and 2009, seems designed to mark the end of his tenure. It celebrates that moment in a very distinguished fashion.
Haitink has long been one of my favourite Strauss conductors – I’d bracket him with Rudolf Kempe. It’s been interesting to find him recently revisiting some Strauss scores that he recorded with the (then) Concertgebouw Orkest quite some time ago. With the Dutch orchestra he made a very fine recording of Ein Alpensinfonie in 1985 and he’s just returned to that score in a highly acclaimed recording with the LSO (see review). In 1970 he made a recording of Ein Heldenleben in Amsterdam, which I bought in an even earlier incarnation than the one so enthusiastically reviewed by Simon Foster a few years ago. This 1970 Heldenleben is a version that I’ve always regarded very highly indeed and so I was delighted to find that Haitink has now given us his latest thoughts on that tone poem.
Simon Foster opined – very rightly – that the 1970 Heldenleben showed Haitink at the height of his powers. Nearly forty years on I’d suggest that those powers show little if any sign of decline but, if anything, we find him here displaying even greater wisdom and experience. And he has the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at his disposal. The playing of the Concertgebouw on the earlier version is superb, with Hermann Krebbers marvellous in the crucial solo violin part. However, the response of the Chicago orchestra to Haitink is also exceptionally fine. Though Haitink would be the last person to think of it in this way, I suspect, for a conductor being at the helm of the Chicago Symphony must be akin to finding oneself at the wheel of a top of the range motor car – refined and completely responsive.
Just as an aside, I was interested to read in the booklet that the Chicago Symphony gave the US première of Ein Heldenleben in 1900. It says a lot for the enterprise of the orchestra’s founder, Theodore Thomas, that he should have programmed such a complex work – and one that, at least in those days, challenged the audience as much as the players – when the Chicago orchestra was a mere nine years old. Today’s CSO – and its audience – takes the work completely in its stride and this performance, captured in superb sound, finds the players displaying fantastic corporate and individual virtuosity.
Right from the very opening phrase the sheer depth of the orchestral tone is quite breathtaking. Throughout the performance the orchestra is capable of producing playing of immense power – without ever forcing the tone – and also, where required, of the greatest delicacy. As Haitink lays out the Hero’s theme there’s no hint of bombast; what we get instead is great confidence as the Hero strides out, purposefully and boldly. In these opening paragraphs the Chicago strings impress and the horn section sets out its collective credentials with panache.
In the Critics’ section, the reviewers and musical commentators who vexed Strauss so much are held up to merciless scrutiny. Haitink and his players define the characters sharply and pointedly – there’s some highly acute woodwind playing hereabouts. More sharp characterisation follows in the section devoted to the portrayal of ‘The Hero’s Companion’. By all accounts, the marriage of Richard and Pauline Strauss was a happy one but one wonders what she thought of this obvious portrayal of her. On this occasion the part of the Companion is taken by the CSO’s concertmaster, Robert Chen. He is given some fiendishly difficult music to play but he shines under Strauss’s spotlight. The characterisation reveals a woman who is, inter alia, coquettish, capricious, wilful, tender and, on occasion, downright shrewish. Chen delivers all this – and more – in abundance. The ensuing Love Scene, which is separately tracked, is voluptuous and sweepingly passionate. In music that forms a bridge between the love music in Don Juan and Der Rosenkavalier, Haitink doesn’t underplay the erotic charge but he keeps the music under control and on a sensible rein. The strings play with real ardour while the horns are just magnificent – sample the passage at 2:51 in track 4. The post-coital passage from 3:15 is full of languor and glowing contentment and I much admired the work of the solo clarinettist in these pages.
The call to arms at the start of the Battle Scene heralds a hugely exciting reading of this section. But the excitement is controlled at all times by Haitink and even in these tumultuous pages he – and the engineers – achieve great clarity; a huge amount of inner orchestral detail is reported. The playing is gripping: is there, I wonder, a more powerful brass section anywhere in the world than that of the CSO in full cry? As an instance of their power, precision and swagger, listen to the trombones and tubas at track 5, 4:07. Strauss’s Hero is triumphant in battle – splendidly so on this occasion – and from 6:49 onwards the playing of the Chicago horn section is resplendent as, in unison, they ascend to a thrilling, climactic top E flat (7:26).
‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ section is handled masterfully by Haitink. This is a remarkable kaleidoscope of self-quotation – in his detailed analysis of the score Norman Del Mar identifies no less than thirty-one quotations (Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on his Life and Works, Vol 1(1962)) – and Haitink and his players weave a fine thematic tapestry here. Their performance of the whole section is deeply impressive; the playing is gloriously refined and richly detailed.
Haitink paces to perfection the extended coda that is ‘The Hero’s Retirement from the World and Fulfilment’. Once again the strings and horns play with great distinction and at track 7, 4: 05 the radiant melody is lovingly unfolded. The long autumnal close from 6:32, taken spaciously but with the right amount of forward movement, is deeply satisfying. There’s more excellent work to admire from Robert Chen and the solo horn – Dale Clevenger, I presume – is equally impressive.
Ein Heldenleben is, surely, the high water mark of Strauss’s orchestral output; this superb performance certainly encourages that view. There are many excellent recordings in the catalogue – my own favourites include Kempe (Dresden, EMI), the aforementioned Haitink (Amsterdam, Phillips), and Reiner (Chicago, RCA); readers will have their own favourites – but this newcomer is as fine a CD version as I can recall.
The coupling is as enterprising as it is apt. Webern’s tone poem Im Sommerwind is a comparative rarity. It was the last work that he completed before beginning his composition studies with Schoenberg – just one month before, in fact. It remained unpublished – though, apparently, not disowned by its composer – and was not performed until 1962, seventeen years after Webern’s death. Though not stated in the documentation I believe that the performances of Im Sommerwind from which this recording is taken were the first that the CSO had given of the work (see review of one of the concerts by Jim Zychowicz). I strongly suspect also that the work is new to Haitink’s discography. If so that makes this recording all the more valuable.
It’s an appropriate coupling, I feel, for the work, which is laid out for a very large orchestra, has a certain affinity with Strauss. However, though Webern deploys a very large orchestra the scoring is remarkable for its delicacy and transparency. The work has nothing like the opulence of Heldenleben, even at the two or three brief climaxes – the final one, however, (track 8, 9:59 - 11:15) is quite ripe. Haitink, with his fastidious ear for orchestral balance, and the CSO, with their superbly refined technique, are just the partnership to do justice to this score. Indeed, while listening I wondered whether, if Webern had heard a beautifully crafted performance such as this one, he might have changed his mind and published the piece.
This is a magnificent CD, distinguished by orchestral playing of world-class stature, by interpretative integrity and great wisdom on the podium. The recorded sound, to which I listened in conventional CD format, is first class. The superb performance of Ein Heldenleben in particular might be regarded as the apotheosis of Haitink in Chicago, though we must hope not only that there are more recordings by him to come from this source but also that his evidently fruitful partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will continue for many years to come.

John Quinn



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