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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) OEHMS CLASSICS OC 888 [64:17]
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.