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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Intermezzo, Op 72 (1924): Four Symphonic Interludes [22:18]
Ein Heldenleben (1898) [47:16]
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. live, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre, Melbourne, 21 August, 2015 (Heldenleben), 5 September, 2015 (Intermezzo)
ABC CLASSICS 481 2425 [69:37]
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 de Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus
rec. Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France, 10 January 2011 (Strauss) and 5 November 2014 (Magnard)
NAXOS 8.573563 [61:07]

The catalogue is packed full of recordings of Ein Heldenleben. Many of these feature American, Austrian, British, Dutch or German orchestras. It’s less common to find an Australian or French orchestra recording the piece although there’s no good reason why they should not. So these two recordings fired my curiosity.

In the case of the Melbourne Symphony/Andrew Davis disc I’ve already had evidence of their capabilities in Strauss because last year I reviewed their recordings of Don Juan, Vier letzte Lieder and Also sprach Zarathustra, which made up an enjoyable CD. Their account of Ein Heldenleben begins confidently. The strings sound good when soaring high above the stave, the horn section is suitably heroic in tone and, above all, I like the firm sonorities at the bass end of the orchestral spectrum. The woodwind are agile and spiky in portraying the Hero’s vituperative critics.

The portrayal of the 'Hero’s Companion' (aka Pauline Strauss) is in the hands of the MSO’s concertmaster, Dale Bartrop. He brings out the lady’s capriciousness but also more than hints at her sensual side. The orchestral interjections during his extended solos – the Hero trying to get a word in edgeways? – are deep and sonorous. When finally the couple kiss and make up – and rather more than that – in the 'Love Scene' Davis ensures that the music is ardent and ripely romantic but, wisely, he isn’t over-indulgent. At the start of the Battle Scene the principal trumpet’s contributions are brazen in tone, which I like. This section goes very well with all sections of the orchestra giving their all. The return of the Hero’s theme is very fine; once again the splendid bass sound is an asset and the horns seize their heroic moment.

‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ is an ingenious musical patchwork which Sir Andrew stitches together with great skill and no little affection. At the start of the concluding section, ‘The Hero’s Retirement from the World’, the glowing string melody is gorgeously delivered by the MSO. Aside from one or interruptions recalling past difficulties, this section should sound noble and suffused with unforced contentment. Davis makes a very good job of this. The solos from the principal violin and the uncredited first horn are excellent. This is a distinguished reading of the tone poem.

Davis chooses an enterprising coupling in the form of the four orchestral interludes that Strauss extracted from his opera, Intermezzo. I wonder if Davis has conducted the opera in the theatre, perhaps at Glyndebourne; it would not surprise me. The first Interlude, which is the most extensive, includes some waltz episodes; these come off well, the music invested with a good waltzing swing. The second extract, ‘Dreaming by the Fireside’, is full of Straussian yearning and languor; from a dreamy opening the piece gradually becomes more sumptuous. Davis brings this off very well indeed, aided by refined playing by the MSO. I view this as a highlight of the disc. By contrast, the third Interlude, which depicts a game of Strauss’s beloved skat, is mainly scored with chamber-like delicacy. It’s nimbly played here. The fourth Interlude portrays the opera’s happy ending and is high-spirited and radiates bonhomie.
There’s applause after both items on this disc but otherwise I wasn’t able to detect much evidence of the presence of an audience. The recorded sound has been well managed. The orchestra is recorded so that ample detail registers but there’s sufficient perspective too; you don’t feel the players are too close. The rich hues of Strauss’s orchestration come over very well and the engineers have done full justice to the excellent playing of the MSO.
The Naxos recording has already been appraised in some detail - and very favourably - by my colleagues. The release celebrates the fifty-year-long career of conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus (b. 1935) and the fortieth anniversary of L’Orchestre National de Lille/Région Nord-Pas de Calais, which he founded in 1976. Though I can’t see any specific mention of the fact by Naxos these two performances must be live ones since the Strauss is prone to some “noises off”. You can frequently hear what I take to be the conductor’s movements on the podium and there are also occasional coughs. As is the way of these things, the coughers always choose a quiet moment to make their contributions. Though these extraneous noises are evident they don’t undermine the listening experience.

There’s much to enjoy in this Casadesus performance. Like Davis, for example, he benefits from the services of a gifted concertmaster, Fernand Iaciu, who does his solos with flair and imagination. The Love Music is well done though I don’t think it sounds as refulgent as is the case in the Melbourne performance. The Hero’s critics vent their spleen and the Battle is full of bite and energy. Casadesus handles the Works of Peace section very well and the way he manages the transition into the closing Retirement section is exemplary. The concluding, tranquil pages are played with fine feeling.

This is a very good account of Ein Heldenleben. What stops me from being even more enthusiastic about it is the sound. It’s satisfactory but when you listen to it in close proximity to the Davis version, which I’ve been doing, the sound rather lacks richness and body, especially in the bass. The French orchestra – at least as recorded – doesn’t seem as full-bodied as the Australian ensemble. There are also one or two moments when instruments or sections become rather too prominent for a little while – I have the timpani and the trombones in mind. One other point of detail that struck me was that the trumpet calls-to-arms immediately before the Battle Scene are expertly distanced on the Melbourne recording; in Lille we hear the trumpets much more closely. In short, I’d have to say that the engineering on the Naxos release is not as sophisticated as is the case on the ABC Classics disc.

Casadesus also has an interesting coupling; indeed, arguably his is the more enterprising. I’m acquainted with the symphonies of Albéric Magnard through the cycles conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce (review) and by Thomas Sanderling (BIS, now on Brilliant Classics). However, his Chant funèbre was new to me. According to Keith Anderson’s informative notes Magnard’s father was a journalist who eventually rose to become editor-in-chief of Le Figaro. Magnard père made it possible for his son to earn some money through music criticism but it seems that the pair did not always see eye to eye. Nonetheless, this quite substantial orchestral work was composed by Magnard in memory of his father after the latter’s death in 1894. The opening is poignant and is followed shortly (from 2:37) by a funeral march which dominates the rest of the piece. The tone of the music is dignified but Magnard’s grief is evident. He may not always have got on with his father but he certainly mourned him eloquently in music. Casadesus and his orchestra play the music very well and with genuine feeling. It’s a good piece and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance through this recording.

In summary, both CDs have interesting and successfully-performed fillers. As for Ein Heldenleben, the French performance has much to commend it and will not disappoint purchasers. However, if choice lies between just these two, leaving aside the many highly distinguished readings in the catalogue, then I think it’s worth paying a bit more for the Davis recording.
John Quinn
Previous reviews (Naxos): Rob Maynard and John Whitmore



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