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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op.20. TrV156 [18:36] 
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40, TrV190 [46:15]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, Philharmonie im Gasteig, 14-18 March 2011; Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, 24-28 February 2014
BR KLASSIK 900127 [64:51]

This is the second Strauss disc by Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks which has come my way. Some time ago I was impressed by a CD that included both Till Eulenspiegel and the Vier letzte Lieder.

This new CD is impressive too, starting with a 2014 traversal of Don Juan. Jansons gets good lift-off at the start though this is by no means a superficially flamboyant reading. The first love music (from 2:38) is ravishing and seductive and the Bavarians lead into the episode with utmost finesse. Once that passage is past there’s more dash and brio until at 7:05 a beguiling oboe solo ushers in a languorous performance of the passage that depicts the Don’s next romantic dalliance. His latest conquest behind him, this Don strides out into the world again with exuberant confidence; hereabouts the playing is superb. Without ever playing to the gallery Jansons and his fine orchestra depict the devil-may-care Don and his lust for life with relish and colour. The depiction of the demise of Don Juan is a masterstroke by Strauss and it’s tellingly realised here. This is a very fine performance indeed.

Though I can’t be sure, because the performance is not dated more precisely than 2011 by Arthaus, I’m pretty certain this CD performance of Ein Heldenleben is the audio version of the reading that’s on an Arthaus DVD that I reviewed in 2013. I didn’t realise that until I came to look up review links as part of typing up my thoughts on the recording but I see that the notes that I made while listening to the CD correspond in many ways to the views I expressed about the filmed performance.

Jansons’ depiction of the Hero is self-confident and assured at the start. However, this is no mere swaggering Hero. To my ears the portrayal is musical and not vulgar. It’s already evident in these opening pages that the orchestra is on top form. I’ve heard performances of Ein Heldenleben in which the Adversaries have sounded more vituperative than is here the case. Even so, these Bavarian Adversaries are still a pretty petulant lot; the woodwind players are right on the ball in their playing here.

Anton Barachovsky, the konzertmeister, offers a vivid and imaginatively nuanced portrayal of the Hero’s Companion; he makes her a fascinating woman, full of contrasts. When it arrives the love music is voluptuous and passionate without ever going over the top and Jansons manages the lovers’ quiet afterglow most poetically. The offstage trumpets that summon the Hero to the colours are nicely distanced. When battle is joined the Bavarian orchestra gives a vivid and dramatic account of this teeming music. It’s very exciting and amid all the tumult I loved the way that the bass drum part registers; you’re aware of its importance in the scheme of things. When the Hero emerges victorious the Bavarian horns are gloriously exultant.

The tapestry of self-quotation that Strauss weaves in ‘Des Helden Friedenswerke’ is something of a touchstone for me; a conductor who can really deliver this section is a top-rate Strauss conductor. No worries on that score here: Jansons handles the music expertly and all sections of his orchestra play marvellously for him. Finally ‘Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung’ for the most part depicts the Hero in tranquil and satisfied reflection. Here Anton Barachovsky shines again, as does his unnamed colleague, the principal horn. The glowing playing in the closing pages is deeply satisfying and sets the seal on an excellent performance of Ein Heldenleben which impressed me greatly.

The sound on both recordings is excellent: there’s plenty of presence and ample detail also. After both performances there is applause – after a decent interval – but otherwise you wouldn’t know the audiences were present. There’s an abundance of choice for both works in the current catalogue but these performances are up with the best.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Michael Cookson



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