Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Ein Heldenleben, Op.40 (1897-1898) [45.17]
Macbeth, Op.23 (1886-1888) [21.06]
Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Andrés Orozco-Estrada
rec. Basilika Kloster Eberbach, Eltville, August 2014 (Macbeth),Alte Oper, Frankfurt, December 2015 (Ein Heldenleben)
PENTATONE PTC5186582 SACD [66.23]

Born in 1977, the Columbian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada has quickly established a reputation as one of the leading musicians of his generation. Recordings he has released so far, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, as well as some of his more distinctive concert programming – Gershwin, Ives, Kodaly, and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra – have shown an emboldened conductor unafraid to dazzle orchestras with his individualistic, yet disciplined, ear for sonority and colour. It’s a confident young conductor indeed who would take on Strauss’ complex and virtuosic Ein Heldenleben but the results are little short of astonishing.

There are plenty of things a great performance of this work can never be: flaccid, unfocussed, bloodless, slack, undisciplined and colourless and, yet, many great conductors from Karajan and Kempe through to Bohm are guilty of this. But no one performance can ever hope to get everything right in it, either. Strauss’ orchestration is of such complexity, the counterpoint so formidably rich and layered that conductors will miss a great deal. Sinopoli and Celibidache, both conductors with famed ears for the smallest orchestral details in Strauss (just listen to Sinopoli’s harps at the close of “Auf dem Gipfel” in his Dresden Alpensinfonie), left remarkable performances of this work but in neither case could they be said to have left a definitive version. Sir Thomas Beecham, a formidable champion of the piece, said of the work: ‘I spent a couple of days on the train with a German friend of mine. We amused ourselves by discovering how many notes we could take out of Ein Heldenleben and leave the music essentially intact. By the time we had finished we had taken out 15,000!’

One of the remarkable things about Orozco-Estrada’s Ein Heldenleben is that it rarely seems to struggle under the weight of there being “too many” notes, though a lot of this has to do with the superb definition Pentatone have given the orchestra. If any work requires state of the art sound it is this piece, and the engineers have largely allowed the Frankfurt players and Orozco-Estrada to untangle some of the densest writing with enormous clarity. That huge E flat opening has uncommon breadth as well as huge dynamic range, and Orozco-Estrada isn’t remotely afraid to be visceral here; the impact is brutal. One of the absolute glories of this performance is the rich bass line, something other conductors, or engineers, seem to ignore in this work of high contrast; Strauss was meticulous in his notation for the strings, though in so many performances you’d struggle to guess this. Just listen to the Frankfurt double basses at Reh.9 until 6m. to Reh.12 (2’43” on the track). At the Langsam marking just before Reh.102 Orozco-Estrada observes each crescendo, f and ff for the double basses as Strauss marks them (38’25”), something which I can barely recall in any other performance of this work. It’s a pity he doesn’t observe the ff for the double basses at four bars after Reh.92, however, something which only Tatsuya Shimono and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Avex AVCL 84032) do in an even more glorious recording of this work (my reference recording of this Tone Poem).

If the opening of Orozco-Estrada’s Ein Heldenleben is strident and surges with real heroic girth, he is also more than awake to the autobiographical intensity of the work’s exquisite beauties. The horn call, recalling Don Juan, is magnificent with his Frankfurt players impassioned, almost erotic in the sheer beauty of their playing. Harps are voluptuous, woodwind not just crisp but phrasing like arias, the cadenza for solo violin as beautifully played as any on disc. Arpeggios, broken chords, rapid scale passages and triple stopping are all beautifully played but done so with an eye, and ear, for portraiture. Soaring strings and harp glissandos are truly operatic in the love music, as sweeping and opulent as they recall Tristan und Isolde. The Battle Scene is explosive and titanic, more monumental than some, for sure. I missed the sheer dramatic power that Takashi Asahina brings to this music in a live recording with the Osaka Philharmonic: where Asahina is furious, Orozco-Estrada is mighty and weighty his adversaries perhaps more Teutonic and strident, whereas Asahina throws everything into the battlefield, and then some more. Both views are perfectly viable, and both conductors are brilliantly attuned to Strauss’ militaristic rhythms. Pentatone’s sound is glorious at highlighting orchestral figures in this battlefield, a stray trumpet, shrieking piccolos, calamitous percussion like an artillery of weapons on the rampage. It’s all the more peculiar, then, that just before the battle starts, trumpets at 19’56 and again at 20’37 have a distinct balance towards the right ear only. Whilst Strauss does mark in his score that three trumpets at Reh.42 should be “hinter der scene” other recordings aren’t quite as extreme as Pentatone are, seemingly giving the left ear dead sound.

The two closing sections of the work are both implacably turbulent and tormented in their intensity in Orozco-Estrada’s hands, moving between moments of utter humanity (such as in the timpani that pulses like a human heartbeat) and the soaring, meltingly tender restatement of the Love Music. The English Horn solo, in the chord of C major, between Reh.99-101 is stunning. When we come to the coda of the work, Orozco-Estrada is able to combine ardour with impetuousness, as the last voices, and they truly are voices, a horn and a violin, one falling as the other ascends, as if on a rollercoaster from the heavenly to the earthly, reach their respective E flat.

Despite the one issue I have with the trumpets before the Battle, Pentatone’s sound is absolutely in the demonstration class. I love the rich string sound the Frankfurt orchestra have been given, the beautifully evocative solos and even when the orchestra is at full throttle some of Strauss’s most complex writing and harmonies can be fully heard. Everything about this performance breathes with both passion and darkness, climaxes are prepared with considerable care and as in the very best Heldenleben’s it is never a case of pushing for maximum volume. The lack of tracking for the work some might find a problem, though one should remember Strauss did remove the titles of the separate movements from his score, and apart from one extended luft pause the work should be played continuously.

Orozco-Estrada’s Ein Heldenleben is a major Strauss recording in my view. It is almost as fine as Shimono’s Czech Philharmonic performance: both are magnificently recorded and played. Both these conductors show exceptional gifts when it comes to getting to the emotional core of this music, connecting the works autobiographical tangents where other seem to hang themselves, and both solve a lot of the textural issues in the scoring that simply elude other conductors. I wouldn’t want to be without live recordings by Asahina in Osaka, or Svetlanov with the Swedish Radio Symphony, in a powerful, sweeping and epic performance that suffers from rather monochrome sound, either. Nor would I want to be without Sinopoli and the Dresden Staatskapelle in a sensational live recording on Profil.

Orozco-Estrada’s Macbeth is no less riveting, though the work itself caused Strauss no end of problems and remains one of his less well-known Tone Poems. Written, and revised, between 1886-1888 (not 1897-98 as Pentatone incorrectly claim) the work owes debts to both Liszt and Wagner: Liszt for its depiction of the characters within a psychological drama, and Wagner for its musical language. The dramatic opening to the work (not unlike Also Sprach with its huge fanfare motif), and with its implied references to monarchy and power, perhaps sound derivative of Wagner, and even Beethoven, but Strauss’ malevolent and rich scoring is very much his own. Stark and horrific his characterization of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth may be, as the music becomes more and more insidious, he works in tremendous climaxes, mighty fanfares and long pauses along the way. Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony play the piece for all it’s worth, encapsulating both the neurotic psychodrama of the work as well as its epic, brooding bleakness (those bass trumpets!) in playing that never lacks the voltage or dynamite of the macabre, or the theatrical with its off-stage side-drum rolls. Pentatone’s full sound exploits the orchestra’s dark, thrilling sound.

A stunning Ein Heldenleben, and a no less brilliant Macbeth, all in state-of-the-art sound, make this one of the best Strauss discs I have heard in years.

Marc Bridle

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