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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, tone poem for large orchestra, Op. 20 (1888) [18.42]
Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), tone poem for large orchestra, Op. 40 (1898) [46.45]
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici (solo violin)
rec. live, 14/17 September 2016, Philharmonie, Munich, Germany

This is my third album review of Valery Gergiev conducting Münchner Philharmoniker on the orchestra’s own label. Richard Strauss was a Bavarian; born and bred in Munich he died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria so it is especially fitting that Münchner Philharmoniker has recorded live two of his greatest works Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben.

The tone poem Don Juan has certainly maintained an enduring popularity in the concert hall and I would guess that it is Strauss’s most frequently played orchestral work. Strauss was aged only twenty-four when he commenced sketches for Don Juan in 1888, a tone poem after Nikolaus Lenau’s dramatic poem. It was the seventeenth century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina who created the character of the renowned Spanish lover Don Juan from traditional folk legends. Regarded as a revolutionary work when Don Juan was introduced at Weimar in 1889 its success elevated Strauss to a kind of superstar status. It’s easy to imagine that this was an extremely happy period in Strauss’s life as around this time he fell in love with the soprano Pauline de Ahna whom he married in 1894.

Immediately from the heroic introduction one senses that Gergiev is taking the listener on an eventful and thrilling journey with an exhilarating performance of real significance. Clearly relishing Strauss’s lush and ripe sensuality Gergiev and his Munich players produce a fresh and vivid palette of orchestral colour. Especially lovely are the violin solos from principal concertmaster Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici and the shimmering horns which reminded me of alphorns sounding through a verdant valley in the Bavarian Alps. In the stormy passages the surging restless energy feels almost awe-inspiring in its potency with Gergiev in total control.

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) is an irresistible orchestral showpiece, including love- and battle scenes, requiring a massive orchestra. It tells the story of a Romantic imaginary hero who 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 played without a pause. Strauss left no written programme but did give a descriptive title to each section.

With its extended wind and brass sections the massive orchestra that Strauss requires for his imaginary hero is persuasively shaped throughout by Gergiev bringing everything together with steadfast assurance. Gergiev insightfully draws the vibrantly coloured scenes that Strauss has packed with incident revealing an impressive quality of rarely perceptible detail. The lengthy third section Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero’s Companion), a loving portrait of Strauss’s wife Pauline de Ahna, is striking with Gergiev accomplishing, without any sense of overindulgence, a degree of ecstatic passion so seldom achieved. Formidable are the impressively integrated, gleaming string sound, vibrant woodwind colours and the gloriously played brass eschewing any temptation for excessive volume. Concertmaster Nasturica-Herschcowici plays marvellously and his interplay with the expert principal horn is completely satisfying. With playing of eminence which feels resolutely heroic the Münchner Philharmoniker is taut and inexorably exhilarating, penetrating from the first measure to the last. With these live Gergiev performances from Philharmonie, Munich the applause has been taken out and there is virtually no extraneous noise. Having considerable presence the satisfying sound quality is clear, nicely detailed and well balanced too. Contained in the booklet the essay ‘Strauss the Tone Poet’ by Stephan Kohler is both helpful and readable.

Not surprisingly, owing to their enduring popularity, Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben are extremely well represented in the catalogue with a number of outstanding recordings available. Across both works the recordings that I play most often are the memorable 1970 (Op. 20) and 1972 (Op. 40) Lukaskirche accounts with Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe on EMI Classics. Highly recommendable too are the striking 1957 Kreuzkirche accounts from Karl Böhm also with Staatskapelle Dresden on Deutsche Grammophon. Of the more recent recordings of Don Juan there is the stunning 2012 performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck from Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh on Reference Recordings. A recent recording of Ein Heldenleben which can rub shoulders with the finest is from Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Ingo Metzmacher recorded in 2007 at Philharmonie, Berlin on Challenge Classics. Here Metzmacher is using Strauss’s original ending that takes out the final brass dominated climax, allowing the writing to decay away to nothing. Without hesitation I can place these live performances from Gergiev and Münchner Philharmoniker alongside those classic recordings from Rudolf Kempe and Karl Böhm mentioned above.

Recently at Philharmonie, Munich I attended a performance of Mahler Fourth Symphony by Münchner Philharmoniker under Gergiev and was delighted to hear this orchestra in such magnificent form upholding its long tradition of performing core Austro/German repertoire (review). These Richard Strauss recordings bear testament that Münchner Philharmoniker under music director Valery Gergiev is achieving a consistently elevated level of performance.

Michael Cookson



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