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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 (1898) [44:43]
Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (1888/89) [25:48]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. 2016, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden
FARAO CLASSICS B108092 [70:43]

Released on Farao Classics this is the second recording of the Richard Strauss trilogy played by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under its principal guest conductor Kent Nagano. It was during his seven-season term as general music director of Bayerische Staatsoper that Nagano developed an understanding of Richard Strauss’ music and the long and enduring performing tradition in the city of Munich’s famous son. The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra also has a tradition of playing Strauss going as far back as its first concert season in 1905/06 with Don Juan and later playing Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) under Wilhelm Stenhammar in 1912.

Buoyed by visiting the Strauss house at Garmisch, Bavaria during the 2013/14 season I attended several concerts celebrating Strauss’s 150th anniversary and was fortunate to hear Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) each on three separate occasions. Ein Heldenleben such an irresistible orchestral showpiece, including love and battle scenes and requiring a massive orchestra, tells the story of a romantic imaginary hero. It can be interpreted as a musical portrait of Strauss himself who was thirty-four when he conducted the première in 1899. A challenging score for orchestral players it is cast in six broad sections (divided on this release into ten tracks) played without a pause. Strauss left no written programme but did give a descriptive title to each section. The massive orchestra with the extended wind and brass sections which Strauss requires for his imaginary hero is bonded together with unwavering assurance. This vibrantly colourful score, crammed with incident, has the California-born Nagano revealing an astonishing amount of otherwise imperceptible orchestral detail. Distinguished is the performance of the third section Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero’s Companion) a love portrait of Strauss’s wife, Pauline de Ahna effectively depicted by the solo violin. Another special passage is Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung (The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion) displaying Strauss at his most generous in spirit. Achieving an elevated level of performance, the Gothenburg players achieve an often spine tingling level of expression seldom achieved. Sticking in the memory is the sound of the unified strings, the detail of the woodwind motifs, the bank of nine horns and the effective off-stage trumpets.

There are several recommendable recordings of Ein Heldenleben namely the 1957 Dresden Kreuzkirche account from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon, the 1974 Philharmonie Berlin account from Berliner Philharmoniker under Karajan on EMI, the 1954 Chicago Symphony Orchestra version under Fritz Reiner on RCA Victor Red Seal and the Dresden Lukaskirche 1972 recording with Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe on EMI Classics. Of the newer recordings especially worthy of attention is Ingo Metzmacher’s 2007 Philharmonie, Berlin account with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin who has chosen to use Strauss’s original ending to Ein Heldenleben. This takes out the final brass-dominated climax to allow the writing to decay away to nothing.

In 1888/89 Strauss wrote the tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) his attempt to depict the last moments of an artist on his deathbed reflecting on his youth. Here Strauss was unable to draw upon his own personal experience of serious illness and was using his imagination. At the behest of Strauss, his friend Alexander Ritter wrote an interpretation of Tod und Verklärung in a poem; in effect a programme note which Strauss later appended to the score. Nagano’s reading feels judiciously paced and in a moving, often dramatic performance he achieves a splendid internal balance of sound. Striking too is the glorious wash of orchestral colour the Gothenburg players achieve.

My first-choice recommendation of Tod und Verklärung is the penetrating 1982 Berlin account by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan and his earlier 1972/73 Berlin account with the same forces each released on Deutsche Grammophon. Although Karajan holds sway I can’t easily dismiss the 1970 Dresden Lukaskirche recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe on EMI Classics and the live 1972 account from Salzburg Festival with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm on Deutsche Grammophon. Of the newer recordings there is the enthralling live 2012 Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh account by Manfred Honeck with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on Reference Recordings. Another worthy and engaging recording is the live 2014, Herkulessaal, Munich account from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons on BR Klassik.

Recorded at Gothenburg Concert Hall, the orchestra, one assumes under studio conditions, is reasonably well recorded with a dry, clear and pleasingly balance. For my taste, nevertheless, I feel these works profit from a rather warmer sound and unfortunately the stunning high strings and woodwind are slightly too bright for my taste, robbing them of richness.

On Farao Classics Kent Nagano presides over quite outstanding performances at Gothenburg but overall the finest of the competition is more gratifyingly recorded.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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