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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 [17:58]
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40* [47:25]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink.
rec. 3 December 1992, Royal Festival Hall, London, ADD; *29 August, 1986, Royal Albert Hall, London, AAD

Before discussing this disc it’s appropriate to say that the LPO have dedicated it to the memory of the late Nicholas Busch (1939-2013). Busch was the son of composer William Busch, a pupil of Aubrey Brain and the LPO’s principal horn for more than three decades (1973-2006). Before joining the LPO he occupied the same position with the New Philharmonia (1966-72): he is the horn soloist on Barbirolli’s famous recording of Mahler’s Fifth (review). It’s hard to think of a better memorial to such a distinguished orchestral player than a coupling of these two scores in which the horn section – and the first horn – is so often to the fore.

The performance of Don Juan is a very fine one. The music bounds along at the start, Haitink injecting excellent momentum. The Love Music is sumptuously played by the strings but the sound is by no means overweight: Haitink knows how to deliver Straussian opulence without making the sound too saturated. Later, the passage between 7:00 and 10:00, introduced by a beguiling oboe solo is played with great delicacy and shortly after (at 10:12) Nicholas Busch and his fellow horn players make their instruments ring out in triumph to celebrate the Don’s latest conquest. Overall the performance is a vivid and colourful one and I enjoyed it very much.

One of the finest recordings I’ve encountered of Ein Heldenleben is the 1970 recording by the Royal Concertgebouw conducted by Haitink (review). On the disc that I have the coupling is not Tod und Verklärung but a distinguished 1973 version of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations in which Haitink conducts the LPO. Sadly, that Philips Heldenleben is no longer available, I understand, but if you come across a copy – with either coupling – snap it up; it’s very fine. This present reading, which was given at the 1986 Proms, is just as distinguished. It’s not a technicolour spectacle, nor is the performance hard driven for effect. On the contrary; it feels ‘just right’ – as is so often the case when this conductor is on the rostrum.

When we first encounter the Hero his music sounds confident and virile – the horns nicely to the fore – but the mere swagger that one sometimes hears in a performance is, thankfully, absent. The clamour of the critics is suitably acerbic and so too, initially, is David Nolan’s portrayal of the Hero’s Companion (aka Frau Pauline Strauss). Nolan plays his demanding solo very well, skilfully going beyond mere pyrotechnics into characterisation. Gradually the Companion’s music melts and the love music (track 4, from 6:46) is rapturous. Listen to how the horn section’s glorious unison (9:30) crowns the love scene.

The urgent call to arms of the offstage trumpets is ideally distanced at the start of the battle scene. The LPO plays this section vividly and with great virtuosity. The percussion section is perhaps a bit more prominent than might be the case in a studio recording but their contribution is not excessive and the balance offers a truthful representation of what one would hear in a concert hall. From 6:20 the horns take over the restatement of the Hero’s theme from the strings and their climactic top E-flat is a gloriously exultant moment, as it should be.

Haitink has delivered an exciting account of the battle but you may not be surprised to read that he’s at his very best in the music that follows. His conducting of Strauss’ ingenious tapestry of self-quotation is masterly; above all this is a recollection in tranquillity of past achievements. Then the long closing section, as the Hero retires from the world, is serene and warmly glowing apart from those occasions when the carping critics or moments of self-doubt intrude briefly. Eventually, David Nolan’s sweet-toned violin is heard again (track 7, 7:26) and he’s joined very shortly by the horn of Nicholas Busch as the two portray Pauline and Richard in warm serenity. The solo playing by both in this passage is very eloquent.

This is an exceptionally fine account of Ein Heldenleben and one that I’m delighted to have alongside the earlier studio version. Each is as fine as the other though I fancy that in this present account Haitink is a touch more expansive in the final section of the work. In both works the LPO is on very fine form indeed. The recording of Ein Heldenleben was made by the BBC while Don Juan was recorded by the LPO themselves. Both recordings are good and in each case there’s no applause at the end, which is good given the quiet endings. The very useful notes are by Stephen Johnson.

Admirers of this greatly distinguished conductor should not hesitate.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Don Juan ~~ Ein Heldenleben