Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben (1898) [47:34]
Albéric MAGNARD (1865-1914)
Chant funèbre (1895) [13:33]
Fernand Iaciu (violin)
Orchestre National de Lille/Région Nord-Pas deCalais/Jean-Claude Casadesus
rec. Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France, 10 January 2011 (Strauss) and 5 November 2014 (Magnard)
NAXOS 8.573563 [61:07]
When I saw that Naxos were about to issue a new recording of Ein Heldenleben, I hoped that we might be getting another release from Antoni Wit and the Staatskapelle Weimar. They, you may recall, produced a 2005 recording of the Alpine symphony that garnered immense critical praise. Of my MusicWeb International colleagues, Gwyn Parry-Jones thought it "a really very fine account of the work, fit to rank with the best available... a miracle." (see here), while Michael Cookson considered that "this magnificent recording ... can live with the very best accounts and in most cases is the superior account... [It is] a golden recording of which Naxos should be very proud" (see here). Nick Barnard, in reviewing another Strauss disc, referred to that Wit/Weimar account as "possibly the single finest achievement in Naxos’s considerable crown" (see here).
Just a couple of years later, Naxos engineers recorded the same artists in another Strauss blockbuster, the somewhat more problematic Symphonia domestica. Once again, the verdict was very positive, though Nick Barnard couldn't, on this occasion, put it at the very top of his recommended versions: "[it is] an ongoing delight to hear this orchestra but not the automatic first choice I had rather hoped it would be". He nonetheless conceded that at least some of his reservations hadn't related to the performance itself, opining that "a different engineer [from the one employed on the earlier Alpine symphony recording sessions] ... has not quite caught the inner detail with such a miraculous combination of detail and beauty as his colleague ...". Thus, when he later observed that, at one point, the performance "seems to become becalmed", he thought that such an impression was actually "in part due to the loss of some of the inner detail" (see review cited above).
With such glowing testimonials to his Straussian credentials, Antoni Wit - still very active on the podium at a sprightly 72 years of age - might have been considered the obvious choice for a new Naxos Ein Heldenleben.
As it turns out, however, the opportunity to record the work has been offered elsewhere. The Orchestre National de Lille, originally known for a few years as the Orchestre Philharmonique de Lille, celebrates its fortieth birthday this year (2016) and is conducted here by its founder Jean-Claude Casadesus. The violin soloist in the Strauss is another musician well known to the orchestra - Fernand Iaciu who has been its concertmaster since 1984. The fact that the recording sessions took place in the orchestra's own concert hall, Le Nouveau Siècle - a structure that, having recently undergone a complete renovation, now makes a splendid addition to the cultural resources of the Région Nord-Pas de Calais - adds to the impression that these are very much home-grown performances.
Although often associated with performances of contemporary music, the orchestra performs, on this occasion, one of the great pillars of the late-Romantic orchestral repertoire along with something of a rarity from the same era. Competition in Ein Heldenleben is intense. Immensely popular with the public and offering, as it does, a showcase for sheer virtuosity as well as artistry, it is a work that's been recorded over the years by virtually every orchestra and conductor of note. There are, it's true, some vintage era accounts that are exceptionally fine: one thinks, in particular, of Willem Mengelberg's groundbreaking 1928 recording with the New York Philharmonic; my version is on RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026 60929 2. Nonetheless, such a densely scored work could only come properly into its own on disc with the consistent improvements in recording quality achieved from the 1950s onwards. Compare, for instance, the sound on Fritz Reiner's 1947 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recording with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra account from just seven years later; both may be found in the RCA Red Seal box set "Fritz Reiner conducts Richard Strauss: the complete RCA and Columbia recordings" . Again, listening side by side to Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1959 (DG 449 725-2) and in 1986 (DG 439 039-2) makes a similar point: the clarity and transparency of the latter's DDD recording - along with Karajan's artistry - successfully cuts through even the most congested passages to reveal an immense amount of inner detail that had remained previously obscured.
In the "golden age" of classical recording from, say, the 1950s to the 1980s, major recording companies employed in-house recording teams, so that the same individual names seemed to be credited on virtually every LP one bought. Naxos engineering credits, though, appear to vary from recording to recording and the fact that, for example, the two names credited on this disc both sound French suggests that maybe company policy is to use local technical support. Whether that's the case or not, there's clearly some sort of corporate quality control process in operation because the standards achieved are virtually always at the highest level. Certainly, M. Casadesus and his Lille forces have been provided with first class sound engineering on this occasion and the recording emerges with both that all-important clarity and a pleasant degree of warmth. Notwithstanding the odd cough or two and a couple of strange bumping sounds that occur early on - doors closing behind latecomers, perhaps? - the sound quality here certainly reaches the requisite standards.
What of the performances themselves? Reviewing this same disc, my colleague John Whitmore was favourably struck by the lack of bombast in the Strauss (see here) and, if that's your own preferred approach, you will certainly enjoy this carefully constructed and considered - and generally very well played - performance. Such restraint can well - and, indeed, on this occasion does - pay positive dividends, especially in the score's concluding sections. However, and as John himself concedes, this is an account where the bigger moments sometimes fail to make their full impact. The hero's conflict against his foes, for example, opens with some distinctly feeble and underpowered brass fanfares and that's just one point in the score where I wish that some rather bigger guns had been deployed. If, like me, you have a preference for the glorious extroversion and bold - yet expertly applied - primary colours of the aforementioned 1986 Karajan performance, you may find M. Casadesus's version to be the aural equivalent of small beer.
With Ein Heldenleben lasting less than fifty minutes, there was plenty of free space left on their disc for more Strauss, but its producers have instead gone down an entirely different track by adding a piece written at much the same time by the French composer Albéric Magnard. It turns out to be a good choice - and not only because it's a rarely heard work that deserves an outing. As a funeral ode composed in memory of the composer's father, its opening mood follows on rather well from Strauss's valedictory closing pages. Gradually, however, over its 13:33 length, the music becomes more positively propulsive and the atmosphere less sombre, as if the initial grief of those left behind has been superseded by resigned acceptance and calm reflection on a life well lived. In some ways, you might even say that it's a similar trajectory to that depicted in Death and Transfiguration, so perhaps the link to Strauss may be seen as not only chronological but also thematic.
Once you get past this release's rather bizarrely chosen cover image - which, unless Magnard père was tragically killed in a mountaineering accident, would surely have been better suited to the Alpine symphony than to Ein Heldenleben - Naxos's presentation is typically professional. The useful booklet notes, written on this occasion by the indefatigable Keith Anderson, will be particularly helpful to anyone who is making the acquaintance of Magnard fils for the first time.
When compact discs can hold up to 80 minutes of music, it is disappointing to note that this new release clocks in at just 61:07. All the same, it can be warmly welcomed as offering an imaginative coupling: a generally enjoyable performance of Ein Heldenleben and a genuine rarity that's well crafted and certainly worth getting to know. I'm also pleased to have made the acquaintance of the accomplished Orchestre National de Lille and look forward to hearing more from it - if, I hope, at rather greater length - in the future.