These recordings were made by Erato shortly before Barenboim
took over as musical director at Chicago and were hailed at
the time as the best possible foretaste of the partnership.
Until recently they were available on Warner’s mid-price Elatus
label but, despite the strong recommendations which they received
in that form, such is the economic pressure of the times that
they have now been further reduced to the budget-price Apex
Competition is strong, even in this lowest price category: I
see that Karajan’s DG Heldenleben is currently on special
offer from several suppliers at just over £5 (477 7156, also
coupled with Till), Chandos offer Järvi on a 2-CD set
for the price of one, Solti on Double Decca costs around £7,
and EMI have the Beecham, Tennstedt and Barbirolli recordings
on 2-CD Gemini sets for around £8, the Barbirolli coupled with
Mahler 6. EMI also have Kempe on a recent 2-CD additon to their
EMI Master series (9187452, with Till, etc., around £8.50).
Warner even have an earlier Apex version with Donald Runnicles.
Among more recent versions, I rather like Semyon Bychkov with
the WDR Orchestra of Köln (Avie AV0017, with an equally fine
Perhaps best of all, certainly among the fastest, the Reiner
recording with an earlier incarnation of the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra has been reissued on SACD for around £7.00 (82876613892,
with Also sprach Zarathustra). See reviews by Ian
Clarke and Paul
Though it was quite right for Warner to place it second – DG
reverse the order for Karajan, which is surely wrong – I listened
to Ein Heldenleben first, immediately after hearing Bychkov’s
version. Though he takes a fraction longer for the work overall,
my immediate impression was of greater vitality from Barenboim
and more incandescence at the points where it matters. Both
conductors generally adopt tempi which allow the music to breathe,
though Barenboim takes the battle scene (des Helden Walstatt,
track 5) more quickly than Bychkov, Rattle or Karajan. Kempe
is slowest of all here, by quite a margin, though he’s a seasoned
Straussian and still manages to convey a sense of turmoil.
The contrast between the battle and Barenboim’s slow tempo for
the following section – almost two minutes slower than Kempe
– helps bring out the tranquility and gentleness of the hero’s
works of peace (des Helden Friedenswerke, tr.6).
With excellent playing from the Chicago Symphony and a full-toned
recording to match, this is a Heldenleben which demands
attention and deserves it. I’m not quite so sure about Till
Eulenspiegel, which really needs to be a little more scatological
than Barenboim suggests.
We may well be wrong to translate Till Eulenspiegel as
‘Till Owlglass’. The original low-German version of the story
names the character as Ulenspegel, which seems to be
connected with the ‘hero’s’ regular habit of defecating in public
places such as inns and churches. (Ule seems to have
been a Low German word for bottom, and spegeln = to wipe.
The episode with the innkeeper at Cologne offers but one example:
Wie Ulenspiegel in Köln dem Wirt auf den Tisch schiß.)
As so often happens, I was disappointed with this Till
the first time that I heard it, but rather less so on second
hearing: sometimes a particular interpretation takes a while
to bed down, but I’d still like a bit more roguishness – something
more like the Szell recording on Sony Great Performances, which
I recommended in the May 2009 Download
Roundup, available as a download for a bargain £2.07 from
Amazon.co.uk, coupled with Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung
and still sounding very well.
It’s not so much a matter of tempo – at 15:33, Barenboim is
almost exactly in line with Karajan’s 15:30 and only a trifle
slower than Solti’s 14:58, Böhm’s 14:57, or Kempe’s 14:43 –
it’s more that Barenboim starts and ends well, making me wonder
the second time round what the problem had been, but the music
is allowed to meander slightly in mid course. The powerful ending
almost compensates for everything.
The usual Apex lack of notes in the booklet – just a folded
slip, in fact – is a serious disadvantage: both pieces have
a story to tell, but how is the novice listener to know what
the music is all about? The earlier Elatus release seems still
to be on sale for not much more: if that contains a set of notes,
as I imagine that it does, it may be the safer bet for beginners.
Otherwise there is information to be had on the web.
Despite minor reservations concerning Till Eulenspiegel,
then, I was impressed overall by this reissue, not least for
its availability at budget price. After all, Ein Heldenleben
is the more important work in terms of duration and musical
significance and that receives a performance to vie with the