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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40 (1898) [45:40]
Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Amériques (1918/22) [25:12]
Lu Wei (violin)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Ingo Metzmacher
rec. 9-10 September 2007, Philharmonie, Berlin
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72644 [71:08]

To say any new recording of a Strauss tone-poem is virtuosically played by an excellent orchestra is now the norm not the exception. So it proves here in Ingo Metzmacher's powerful 2007 live performance with the ever-impressive Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Quite why this has remained in the Challenge Classics vaults for seven years I cannot imagine. 2007 was right at the beginning of Metzmacher's three year tenure as the orchestra's music director and certainly they play with skill and commitment for their new chief. Metzmacher has a predisposition in favour of twentieth century music and challenging programming. Thus the juxtaposition of Strauss and the modernist Varèse, which at first glance might seem odd, is triumphantly justified and proves enlightening and fascinating. The recording dates, on consecutive days, implies that this was how the music was programmed in concert as well as here on disc.

Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben is a work that has divided opinion from its very first performance. It can either be seen as a gross act of artistic hubris or a virtuosic summation of 'Art' at the close of the nineteenth century. Habakuk Traber in his very interesting liner makes the valid point that Strauss was far from alone in seeing himself as the leading 'voice of the age'; in music alone Wagner, Mahler, Schönberg and Varèse would think the same. Traber argues therefore that for all the trappings of late Romanticism, Heldenleben should be viewed as future music and if one accepts that premise the link to Varèse and others is instantly clear. The fact that Strauss shied away from the tonal and instrumental implications of the future in the following decades does not wholly undermine the argument.

No surprise then that Metzmacher approaches the score from a modernist viewpoint. There are pros and cons to such an approach. The main gain is a clarity of texture and form. Aided by the very fine Challenge Classics recording, instrumental lines are teased out of the thick orchestral textures with skilful balancing and brilliant playing. This is especially true in the - infamous - Hero's Works for Peace section where Strauss weaves thirty-one of his own themes and motifs together in an astonishing display of technical virtuosity. I'm not sure I have ever heard that passage performed with such clarity. In isolation the big 'heroic' moments register well too - the full and rich tone of the orchestra led by suitably heraldic horns is everything one could ask for, confidently striding across the score. The catalogue is crammed with excellent classic accounts of the score. Where Metzmacher, with his modernist objectivity, is less strong is character. There are key moments when he refuses to allow a phrase to broaden, a climax to expand or dare one say - indulge the music. Hence in the same 'Works for Peace' section Metzmacher refuses to allow the glorious moment of arrival at the great Don Juan horn theme to open out into the exultant cathartic release that it must be. Personally I would trade thirty minutes of textural clarity for that.

Along with Scheherazade, Heldenleben is the other big showpiece for an orchestral leader in the regular repertoire. Metzmacher's leader, Wei Lu is as technically adept as one would expect. As it happened, at the same time I was listening to this recording to write this review, I bought a set of re-mastered Karajan recordings which included his 1974 Heldenleben for EMI with the Berlin Philharmonic. His leader was Michel Schwalbé who brings a completely different level of sophistication and nuance to the very hard solos. Schwalbé creates a multi-faceted character where Lu plays the notes. Curiously, the Karajan performance is not one I had heard before so I am not comparing new with long-loved favourite. Also, Karajan is completely engaged with allowing the music a richly romantic ebb and flow. This is a matter of degree; no-one coming to Metzmacher in its own right could fail to be impressed. Particularly because he is most consistently impressive in the closing reflective pages - here is beautifully poised and indeed tender playing. No real surprise that Metzmacher opts for the original quiet fading out - both this and the tacked-on climactic chord version are legitimate but I do feel Strauss's first thoughts were best.

The use of the original version of Varèse's Amériques is of considerably greater interest given the significant differences between it and the revised score. Traber's liner is very good at highlighting both the historical lineage of the work back to Strauss as well as its forward-looking modernity. Although Varèse uses essentially a symphony orchestra, albeit one with a vastly expanded percussion section, it is the 'special effects' that will strike most first-time listeners. Whether that is the sirens or whistles or crow-call or the grinding dissonance, in many ways this can be heard as Musique concrète before even the concept was conceived. Traber points out that the work is more traditional in one sense at least with conceptual blocks of melody, sound and rhythm given individual structural roles often in direct conflict with each other. For a work premiered in 1926 - barely a quarter century after Heldenleben - it still sounds remarkably modern.

This is meat and drink to Metzmacher who delivers a spectacularly confident rendering of the score. Once again he is supported to the hilt by his Berlin players and the excellence of the Challenge Classics recording. Even more so than in the Strauss there is a superb three-dimensional quality to the soundstage that helps the theatricality of the score greatly. The original version includes off-stage brass and we are given a very realistic 'front-to-back' perspective as well as an easy encompassing of the massive dynamic range the 142-piece orchestra demands. With such a heavily scored piece again Metzmacher's strength regarding the clarification of textures is a major gain. It is a score that is much more rare either on disc or the concert hall so comparisons are harder to make. Riccardo Chailly's survey of the complete Varèse orchestral works used a different edition to restore the composer's original intentions. Having not heard that version I cannot comment on the difference in either edition or performance but my instinct is that Metzmacher is an exceptionally convincing guide. This will never be a favourite work of mine but I will return to this performance.

As mentioned, these are live performances. Certainly nothing in the execution gives any clue to that - just the very occasional audience noise is audible. The engineering supports the music-making to the hilt. This is a standard CD. It struck me that this is the kind of programme that would respond well to the SACD format. Presentation is in Challenge Classics preferred minimalist style; the good essay and biographical notes are clearly printed in just German and English. Traber's essay is very informative even where a couple of times phrases have been rather lost in obscure translation; "he used the sonar virtuosity of a Richard Strauss as background" is one such.

A challenging but rewarding coupling well performed and superbly engineered.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Michael Cookson