Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28 (Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks) [15:33]
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40 (A Hero’s Life) [47:06]
Samuel Magad (violin solo)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, September 1990. DDD.
WARNER APEX 2564 67716-3 [62:39]
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 label.
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 Metamorphosen).
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 Lace, Colin Clarke and Paul Shoemaker.
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 very best.
A Heldenleben to rival the best – and Till is not far behind.