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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888) [18.36]
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op. 40 (1898) [46.15]
Anton Barachovsky (violin)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 24-28 February 2013, Herkulessaal, Munich (Op. 20); live, 14-18 March 2011, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich (Op. 40)
BR KLASSIK 900127 [64.55]

In the 2014 celebrations, marking the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth on 11 June 1864, there were plenty of performances and these resulted in a number of splendid recordings. As Strauss was a Bavarian, born and bred in Munich and who died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, it is particularly fitting that the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons have released these live recordings of Don Juan and Heldenleben on BR Klassik.

The tone poem Don Juan has certainly maintained an enduring popularity and I would guess it is Strauss’s most frequently played orchestral work. Strauss was aged only twenty-four when he commenced sketches in 1888 based on a tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau’s dramatic poem. It was the seventeenth century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina who created the character of the renowned Spanish lover Don Juan based on traditional folk legends. Regarded as a revolutionary work when introduced in Weimar in 1889 its success elevated Strauss to superstar status. It’s easy to imagine that this was an extremely happy period in Strauss’s life as around this time he fell in love with the soprano Pauline de Ahna whom he married in 1894. Immediately from the heroic introduction maestro Jansons creates an exhilarating, fresh, outdoor feel. Clearly relishing Strauss’s lush and ripe sensuality Jansons and his Bavarians produce a vivid palette of orchestral colour. The shimmering sounding horns reminded me of alpenhorns sounding through an alpine valley. In the stormy passages the surging restless energy feels almost overpowering, awe-inspiring in its delivery yet with maestro Jansons maintaining complete control.

Owing to its extreme popularity this work has enjoyed a considerable number of recordings of which I have listed my particular favourites. First the generously expressive 1957 Dresden account from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon. Karl Böhm again this time with the Berliner Philharmoniker in a quite excellent performance from 1963 at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. There is much to admire in both the 1961 Orchestra Hall, Chicago recording from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner on RCA Red Seal and the 1954 account by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Fritz Lehmann from the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon (reissued on Regis). For its passion and intensity I have a high regard for the 1970 account with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe recorded at the Dresden Lukaskirche on EMI Classics. Also worthy of acclaim is the 1972/73 account from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan from the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. Of the more recent accounts there is compelling 2012 recording from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck from the Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on Reference Recordings. In remarkable form too we find the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons in their 2011 account recorded live at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham on Orfeo.

During the 2013/14 season I attended a number of concerts celebrating the Strauss anniversary and was fortunate to hear the tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) on three occasions. This irresistible orchestral showpiece, including love and battle scenes requiring a massive orchestra, tells the story of a Romantic imaginary hero who can be interpreted as a musical portrait of Strauss himself who was thirty-four 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 supply a descriptive title for each episode. With its extended wind and brass sections the massive orchestra is magnificently shaped by Jansons who brings everything together with unwavering assurance. He astutely draws the vibrantly coloured scenes that Strauss has packed with incident revealing a remarkable quality of rarely perceptible detail. The lengthy third section Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero’s Companion), a loving portrait of Strauss’s wife Pauline, is particularly striking with Jansons achieving, without any sense of overindulgence, a rare intensity of ecstatic passion. The impressively integrated string sound is memorable and the vibrant woodwind colours and gloriously played brass eschew any temptation for excessive volume. Principal concertmaster Anton Barachovsky is on splendid form and his interplay with the principal horn are both gratifying and virtuosic. With playing of distinction the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is resolute and relentlessly exhilarating, compelling from first to last.

Not surprisingly Ein Heldenleben is extremely well represented with a number of outstanding recordings. The account that I play most often is the 1957 recording from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm from the Dresden Kreuzkirche on Deutsche Grammophon. Commendable too are the 1954 account from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner from the Orchestra Hall, Chicago on RCA Victor Red Seal and the 1972 recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe from the Dresden Lukaskirche on EMI Classics. Also worthy of consideration is the 1974 Philharmonie Berlin account from Berliner Philharmoniker under Karajan on EMI. A recent recording that I described as "a dazzling, twenty four carat gold performance that can rub shoulders with the best" is from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Ingo Metzmacher recorded in 2007 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Challenge Classics. Here Metzmacher uses Strauss’s original ending to Ein Heldenleben that takes out the final brass-dominated climax allowing the writing to decay away to nothing.

In both these live performances from the Herkulessaal and the Philharmonie, Munich the applause has been left in but this presents no problem and is included in the timings. I found the sound quality from both venues satisfying, clear and well balanced with considerable presence. It's well detailed too. The booklet sets out four short essays which cover all the essential information. A minor grumble is that at only sixty-five minutes playing time another work such as the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier or maybe even Till Eulenspiegel could have been fitted on.

Chief conductor Mariss Jansons and this world-class orchestra are great Straussians and these live accounts can stand confidently alongside the finest recordings in the catalogue.

Michael Cookson