Strauss’s heroic life is well documented on disc, with Fritz
Reiner (RCA Living Stereo), Neeme Järvi (Chandos), David
Zinman (Arte Nova) and Sir Georg Solti (Decca) among the front
runners. In such a crowded field this new version from Yannick
Nézet-Séguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic needs to be very
special if it’s not to be an also-ran. I have to say their recent
Symphonie fantastique – review
– is desperately underwhelming, not helped by a perceived very
low level recording (see footnote)
and mannered phrasing. And yet, as I pointed out then, this
conductor made amends with an exhilarating performance of the
Berlioz in Berlin eighteen months later.
What makes this new disc especially tempting is the inclusion
of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, sung by the German soprano
Dorothea Röschmann. And if Heldenleben has its fair share
of classic accounts then so does this: from Lisa della Casa
and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf through to Gundula Janowitz, Soile
Isokoski and Renée Fleming, these radiant songs seldom fail
to work their magic, although I have to confess Schwarzkopf’s
later account with George Szell remains sans pareil for
me. And don’t forget Heather Harper, whose version with Richard
Hickox proved to be a late, but lovely, bloomer (review).
But first, Heldenleben. This autobiographical piece certainly
has its detractors, but in the right hands and with the right
band it can sound as ravishing as anything Strauss ever wrote.
I mention the orchestra because this music really benefits from
a full, sumptuous sound – preferably with well-blended brass
section – and a smoothness of line. I once saw Karajan castigated
for his ‘clinging legato’, and I know exactly what the writer
means; that said, a seamless quality is all-important here,
as is a firm grasp of the work’s architecture. All the conductors
I’ve listed here have those qualities, albeit to varying degrees;
they also have top-notch ensembles at their fingertips.
The Rotterdam Phiharmonic is not a bad orchestra, but where’s
the testosterone as our hero struts forth? And why is the recording
level ridiculously low, robbing the music of all its bite and
– later – its bile? Nézet-Séguin must shoulder some of the blame
for this lacklustre introduction which, despite impressive climaxes,
sounds curiously bland. I simply don’t sense he has the measure
of this piece, and that’s not a good sign in a work as forthright
and self-assured as this. Even the scribblings of the hero’s
adversaries – ‘Der Helden Widersacher’ – aren’t as acid as they
can be, but Nézet-Séguin does find a modicum of ardent lyricism
And that’s what I miss most, a sense of coherence, of one episode
knitting seamlessly with the next. No sooner do we get a glimpse
of genuine nobility than the music slides towards banality.
True, that’s a hazard with this composer, but incisive playing
and a keen ear for Strauss’s glorious sonorities does minimise
the risk of such lapses; neither quality is in evidence here,
so it’s little wonder the musical edifice sags so soon. As for
the hero’s companion – ‘Des Helden Gefährtin’ – those tumescent
tunes have seldom seemed so passionless, the brass so underpowered.
And even though Igor Gruppman’s violin solo is nicely played
the conductor’s tendency to surge and retreat – something I
noticed on the Berlioz disc – is not only irritating it’s also
And despite some thrilling tuttis and a delectable harp the
sonics of this hybrid SACD are no match for those in Mark Wigglesworth’s
Shostakovich cycle, for example. The latter sets a benchmark
for large-scale orchestral recordings, and I so wish BIS could
recapture some of that here. And where better to do that than
the martial bluster of the hero’s battle – ‘Des Helden Walstatt’
– where the snare and bass drums are superbly caught. But intermittent
glories don’t begin to compensate for an otherwise sporadic
performance. Here, and in so many instances, Järvi has
a complementary sense of momentum and proportion that never
fails to please; factor in vintage Chandos sound and his Heldenleben
remains one of the most satisfying in the catalogue.
As for the hero’s works of peace – ‘Des Helden Friedenswerke’
– this section usually has a sweep, an amplitude, that carries
all before it. I wish that were so this time around, but it’s
all too inhibited – tentative, even. Despite some gorgeous sounds
from the orchestra the exaggerated pauses and mannered phrasing
are very distracting indeed. Just listen to those feeble timp
strokes at the start of the hero’s retirement – ‘Des Helden
Weltflucht und Vollendung’ – and the overparted brass and string
figures that follow. Sadly, banality beckons just as Strauss
introduces some of his most radiant writing. I will concede
that the horn playing here is splendid and that the finale unfolds
as it should, with a quiet, sustained grandeur.
Now that’s more like it, but what a shame it’s taken so long
to reach this point. That said, ensemble isn’t always tidy and
there’s still a hint of that stop-start approach that disfigures
so much of this reading. At least we get the spectacular, efflorescent
ending and not the quiet alternative we hear on Fabio Luisi’s
disc from Sony. But even here Nézet-Séguin doesn’t calibrate
the finale as well as his rivals –Järvi in particular –
so when that peroration arrives it sounds a tad overblown. And
that sums up this Heldenleben rather well; a might-have-been
blighted by too many misjudgements to warrant an endorsement
But what of the enticing filler? Now this is the ultima Thule
of orchestral songs - a tough test for all concerned. One
of the abiding joys of the Schwarzkopf/Szell version – even
if one doesn’t always approve of Dame Elisabeth’s arch phrasing
– is the synergy that exists between these performers. This
recording catches greatness on the wing, Szell and his Berlin
band capturing the fleeting glory of Strauss’s valedictory piece
in a way I’ve never heard equalled, let alone bettered. The
Rotterdam sound is certainly full and creamy at the start of
‘Fruhling’, Röschmann sounding light but suitably expansive.
That said, it’s not a particularly seamless voice and it does
have a rapid beat at times, but it’s certainly expressive.
A promising start, even though the voice does harden a little
under pressure. I’m not sure Röschmann captures the evanescent
quality of ‘September’ in quite the way that Schwarzkopf and
Harper do, but it’s a lovely performance nonetheless. Even Nézet-Séguin
and his band sound wonderfully rapt here. The start of ‘Beim
Schlafengehen’ is glowingly done. The heart-stopping beauty
of this loveliest of songs is magnificently caught, a rare triumph
amongst the debris of disappointment; it’s also proof that this
team can make magic when required.
It does get better. The orchestral introduction to ‘Im Abendrot’
is as refulgent as one could wish for. Röschmann is in command
here, capturing that all-pervasive blend of resignation and
contentment. As for the orchestra, they play with utter conviction,
the rise and fall of this music – its ebbing breath – most eloquently
realised. Indeed, it’s all naturally paced and contoured, the
farewell being as poignant as ever. Nézet-Séguin seems much
more attuned to autumnal Strauss. The long, death-embracing
postlude is most movingly done.
It’s not often one comes across a recording of such contrasts;
it’s all very perplexing, but as my response to this conductor’s
Berlin debut confirms he’s clearly capable of great things.
I so wanted to give him a hero’s welcome here, but this Heldenleben
is not competitive. The songs are more successful, but even
here one can’t avoid a sense of what-might-have-been. As for
the sonics, BIS seem to have lost the lead they established
with their earlier SACDs; I do hope they return to form some
A note from Robert von Bahr
One ground rule is never, but never to get into a debate with
a critic - they invariably get the last word, mayhaps a very
acerbic one at that.
But I have to throw caution to the winds here, when I read your
review of BIS-SACD-1880 Ein Heldenleben with the Rotterdam Phil
under Yannick N-S, and I am going to take you to task.
I have no objection whatsoever to your opinions about the music-making
or your several comparisons - they are, respectively, yours
to make, and I can just say de gustibus non discutandum...
But when you start to write about technical details you write
Specifically, your comments on on low-level recordings. Quotes:
...not helped by a very low level recording...
...And why is the recording level ridiculously low, robbing
the music of all its bite and – later – its bile?...
...As for the sonics, BIS seem to have lost the lead they established
with their earlier SACDs; I do hope they return to form some
Well, the answer is the following: The recording level is NOT
ridiculously low, or, actually, low at all. However, you do
make the same mistake that most of the general public do, but
which you shouldn't, and that is that you compare an honest,
original-dynamic recording with all the compressed, manipulated
and faked recordings out there.
If you cared to measure the peaks of this recording, you'd
find that they go up to the maximum allowed. Indeed you write
yourself ...And despite some thrilling tuttis... (how can they
be thrilling, if they are desperately "under-recorded"??).
The peaks of basically all other recordings also reach that
same maximum. However, the extended dynamic range (that's a
technical term, meaning the decibel difference between the loudest
and softest passages of a given recording) that is part of the
24-bit recording and SACD reproduction systems makes it possible
to encapsulate what the composer wrote and the artists performed,
without any alterations, level-wise. (Possibility, though, doesn't
make for actual actions, as most other companies have shown
through their fake and manipulated recordings.) Simply put:
we define the loudest crash of the whole SACD, put that at 0
dB, and let the rest be in peace, i.e. what is being performed.
The obvious advantage is that you get a recording with the absolutely
correct dynamic range and audio level, as performed by the Artists.
The equally obvious disadvantage is that the average level will
be lower than on recordings which have been compromised, either
electronically or by hand, meaning that their dynamic range
has been diminished, i.e. compressed, which all is another way
of saying that our recording has a vastly superior dynamic range,
to be literal, precisely as vastly superior as you perceive
the level to be ridiculously low!!
Yes, I do concede that our system of recording gives the equipment
of the listener a tougher workout. You have to crank the amplifier
up and have good speakers in order to enjoy the recording to
its fullest capacity. It is for those discerning people that
we make our recordings. I do concede that this makes it all
but impossible to listen to the recording in a car, in a noisy
ambience or in the shower, or wherever you may choose to listen
to it outside of a good listening room.
Having said that, I also have to state that I find the value
of true honesty, honesty to the composer's score, honesty to
the Artists and honesty to their playing, to FAR outweigh the
disadvantages mentioned above.
Conversely I find the compression of recordings, so rampant
in this day and age, presumably to fit mp3 media, to downsize
the music to fit boom-boxes or computer soft-speakers, to enable
listening in any ambience, thus depriving the music of any likeness
to what was actually performed, to be scandalous, and I am flabbergasted
that a critic, as well-known as you, firmly deprives himself
of any technical credibility by yielding to that misconception
and the writing of the quotes above.
Our recording accurately shows the dynamic range, on a medium
that so allows, that the Artists intended and actually performed.
You may disagree with what they did, how they played, the colour
of the conductor's hair, or whatever, but you can not write
as you did and get away with it. Now let's see, if you, or your
Editor, have the integrity of an English gentleman and own up
to your mistakes.
Thank you for reading - Robert von Bahr, CEO, BIS Records