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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben Op. 40 (1898) [43:33]
Metamorphosen (1945) [26:27]
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Cornelius Meister
rec. live, 22 February 2007, 17-20 February 2014 (Metamorphosen), Vienna ORF Funkhaus, Grosser Sendessaal.
CAPRICCIO C5208 [70:00]

I'm not the worlds biggest fan of everything Richard Strauss wrote, but this combination of the less-appreciated Ein Heldenleben and masterpiece Metamorphosen is attractive. The themes of both have been echoing around in my head for days now so this recording can count as an effective communicator whatever your critical approach is. Cornelius Meister is prepared to let rip with the Vienna RSO and there is no shortage of High Romance and Heroism, but what I appreciate about this live performance is in fact the feeling of relative restraint which allows expressive and dramatic moments to enter and insinuate rather than having them bashed over your head like a heavy champagne bottle.

Competition is pretty stiff for Strausss Ein Heldenleben, with the recent release from Challenge Classics with Ingo Metzmacher conducting the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (see review) hot on the heels of Cornelius Meister. Metzmachers orchestra is richer and more spectacular, but the Vienna players are more nimble and transparent sounding. I certainly wouldnt go as far as saying that the Berlin sound is overblown, but if you prefer your high-Romanticism to have the kind of cleanness of line which makes Strausss striking harmonies stand out all the more then you might prefer this ORF recording. The coupling with Varhse may also make the difference, but if it scares you I would still urge you to make the acquaintance of this key composer one way or another.

We should also all of course listen to the historic 1941 recording conducted by dedicatees Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (see review). This has a darkness of mood and gritty tenacity which is hard to equal, and the very good Naxos re-mastering makes it very approachable. Most modern recordings turn up with a kind of Hollywood sheen by way of comparison, but as I say, the communicative qualities of Cornelius Meisters leadership makes this Vienna recording one which nestles in the imagination, plants its seeds and grows unbidden. Ein Heldenleben is not about any one particular hero and it shouldnt sound jingoistic or bombastic. Its a superb score with plenty of quirky details, and Cornelius Meister and the Austrian sound engineers are all alert this character in the music as well as in the grand impressive picture of the orchestra as a whole. As such this performance has plenty going for it, and as a live performance there is an edge of excitement to add to the fun.

Metamorphosen is one of Strausss late masterpieces and one which has had many fine recordings over the years. Otto Klemperer with the Philharmonia on EMI is on the broader end of the spectrum at a well-filled 28 minutes but with bags of intensity doesnt give the impression of being exceptionally slow. Around 27 minutes is common, and Cornelius Meister gives the music plenty of weight while not becoming over-sustained. Listening to Herbert von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmonic on DG is an intriguing contrast. At 27:30 or so it only adds a minute to Meisters performance duration but seems to linger eternally, and even where the pace quickens the soup remains thick. The Vienna RSO strings have a vibrato-rich, gorgeous dark tone, and the attentive detail in dynamics keeps up a sense of flow even when the music is in sepulchral repose. The studio acoustic is not very generous, and while the whole is perhaps not the best defined of recordings it still packs plenty of emotional punch.

If this coupling attracts then I would certainly go for this release, but most particularly for the fine Ein Heldenleben.

Dominy Clements