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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]

This excellent new release offers stunning, twenty four carat gold versions of Ein Heldenleben and Amériques. Strauss and Varèse were considered progressive composers in their day and both works, which might seem to have emanated from completely different worlds, are separated by only twenty-four or so years.

During the 2013/14 season I attended a number of concerts celebrating Strauss’s 150th anniversary and was fortunate to hear Ein Heldenleben on three occasions. This irresistible orchestral showpiece, including love and battle scenes and requiring a massive orchestra, tells the story of a Romantic imaginary hero. It can be interpreted as a musical portrait of Strauss himself who was 34 when he conducted the première in 1899. A challenging score for orchestral players it is cast in six broad sections played without a pause. Strauss left no written programme but did give a descriptive title to each section. Ingo Metzmacher has chosen to use Strauss’s original ending to Ein Heldenleben. This takes out the final brass-dominated climax to allow the writing to decay away to nothing.

The massive orchestra with the extended wind and brass sections that Strauss requires for his imaginary hero is bonded together with unwavering assurance. This vibrantly colourful score, crammed with incident, has the Hanover-born Metzmacher revealing an astonishing amount of otherwise rarely perceptible orchestral detail. Especially notable is the third section Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero’s Companion) a love portrait of Strauss’s wife, Pauline de Ahna. The Berlin players achieve an elevated level of aching, ecstatic passion so rarely achieved. Sticking in the memory are the gloriously unified strings, the off-stage trumpets sounding like distant hunting horns.

Time will tell if this performance proves an enduring match for the finest versions in the catalogue. There is the 1957 Dresden Kreuzkirche account from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon, the 1974 Philharmonie Berlin account from Berliner Philharmoniker under Karajan on EMI, the 1954 Chicago Symphony Orchestra version under Fritz Reiner on RCA Victor Red Seal and finally the Dresden Lukaskirche 1972 recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe on EMI Classics.

Edgard Varèse, the temperamental French-born American modernist composer is still referred to as the ‘Father of electronic music’. He arrived in the USA in 1915 and said of his symphonic poem Amériques “I found myself in the phase of my first impressions of New York - not the sights but the sounds of New York … I gave the first piece I wrote in America the title Amériques.” Written in 1918/22 for a massive symphony orchestra of over one hundred and forty players Varèse later revised the work in 1927. Being used here by Ingo Metzmacher is a reconstruction of the original version prepared by Klaus Angermann.

A specialist in twentieth and twenty-first century music maestro Metzmacher is very much at home with Amériques and directs an exhilarating interpretation of considerable dramatic impact that at times delivers something close to a physical punch. In this example of Varèse’s original and unsettling sound-world I found the concentration and commitment of the well prepared Berlin players deeply impressive. I place this awesome performance on a par with the award-winning 1996 Decca recording of Amériques played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. The performing edition of the original 1918/22 version used by maestro Chailly was completed by Prof Chou Wen-Chung.

Challenge Classics have provided the quality of sonics needed to display these two flamboyant scores at their finest. There are some exceptional orchestras in the German capital and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is certainly one of the finest.

This astute pairing is one of the most remarkable releases I’ve heard this year.

Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Ein Heldenleben