Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898) [46:58]
Vier letzte Lieder (1946-1948) [21:19]
Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. June 2010, de Doelen Hall, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Song texts and English translations provided
BIS-SACD-1880 [69:13]

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 fantastiquereview – is desperately underwhelming, not helped by a very low level recording 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 here.

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 dramatically counter-productive.

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 from me.

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 time soon.

Dan Morgan

This Heldenleben is not competitive. All very perplexing.