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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898) [43:50]
Macbeth, Op. 23 (1888/1891) [20:25]
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester/Sebastian Weigle
rec. live, Alte Oper Frankfurt, 19-20 June 2011 (Heldenleben), 26-27 May 2013 (Macbeth)

What better way to launch Richard Strauss’s 150th than with this new recording of Heldenleben, played by the very orchestra that premiered it? Few pieces capture the composer’s larger-than-life musical persona better than this autobiographical essay; as if that weren’t enough it’s framed in music of astonishing richness and amplitude. There are many fine versions in the catalogue, among them the Neeme Järvi/RSNO account on Chandos and the 1954 Fritz Reiner/Chicago one on RCA. Both are highly desirable for their blend of sweep and structure. As expected the Chandos sonics are excellent, but the RCA recording remains remarkable for its age.
First impressions of this new Heldenleben are highly favourable. The opening bars of ‘The Hero’ show commendable grip and breadth, qualities that I long for - yet rarely find - in this work. Even more pleasing is the deep, sonorous sound and top-notch playing; little wonder that this band is regarded as an ‘A-list’ ensemble in Germany. As for conductor Sebastian Weigle he clearly has the measure of this score, which means there’s no shortage of heft or delectable Straussian detail. It’s well shaped and projected too; more important, the overall blend - so vital in this music - is impeccable throughout.
The purple-inked scribblings of Strauss’s critics and nay-sayers are nicely calibrated; all too often conductors court vulgarity by over-characterising these episodes. For instance Ingo de Haas is a generous, full-toned soloist in 'The Hero's Companion', but he's never cloying. The battle is also well judged; it parries and thrusts with the best of them, yet it has an aristocratic mien - a quixotic gleam, even - that's most endearing. The brass and timps are simply breathtaking, and it’s all so effortlessly done. Goodness, this is one of the most complete and compelling Heldenlebens I’ve heard in ages. I’m particularly impressed by the sound, which is among the best I’ve heard on a Red Book CD. It’s warm, naturally balanced and there’s no hint of strain in the tuttis.
A highpoint of this recording must be ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’, which has all the surge and swell one could wish. It’s supple and stylish too, and that makes these dancing rhythms more seductive than usual. Strauss performances don’t come more seamless and authoritative than this; indeed, the horns in ‘The Hero’s Withdrawal’ are every bit as noble and self-sacrificing as they are in Järvi’s memorable version. In Weigle's hands the music unfolds in a series of epiphanies that moved me far more than this score normally does. The new Roth/Baden-Baden und Freiburg version (Hänssler) has clarity and lightness on its side - it's also more tenderly drawn than most - but as recent Heldenlebens go Weigle's must be at or near the front of a very crowded field.
Macbeth, the first step on Strauss’s ‘new path’, makes a darkly intense filler. Once again I was struck by the virtuosity and discipline of this orchestra, not to mention Weigle’s sure, steady grasp of Strauss’s musico-dramatic structures. This is a terrific piece - incisive, momentous - and it really ought to be more popular than it is. Both this and Heldenleben are fine works - no modest or mischievous equivocations required - especially when they are played with such conviction and skill. One would never know these are live performances; the audience is mouse quiet and there’s only applause - strong and sustained - after Macbeth.
Heroic performances, superbly recorded; a fine start to the Straussfest.
Dan Morgan

Masterwork Index: Ein Heldenleben ~~ Macbeth