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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 Symphon Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. 2016, Göteborger Konzerthaus
FARAO CLASSICS B108092 [70:43]

This is the second part of Farao Classics 'Strauss Trilogy', which began last year with Eine Alpensinfonie, an impressive recording, which led me to comment that the omens look favourable (review). This was in good part due to two reasons. Firstly, Nagano and the Göteborgs Symfoniker have had fruitful working relationship dating back twenty-four years to 1993. Since 2013 he became their Principal Guest Conductor. Secondly, his Strauss credentials have served him well over the years. Added to the potent mix is an orchestra, which has distinguished itself in Strauss performances over many decades under such conductors as Wilhelm Stenhammar, Sergiu Comissiona, Sixten Ehrling, Neeme Järvi and Gustavo Dudamel.

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) is a veritable showpiece, and its orchestral demands far exceed any of its seven predecessors. It is a point of contention, whether it is autobiographical. The composer himself denied it:  "I'm no hero: I'm not made for battle". It's astonishing to think that he includes more than thirty quotations from earlier works. The Hero is boldly declaimed in the opening. The critic's chatter, which follows, is barbed and peppery, achieved by some crisply articulated woodwinds. The violin solo, depicting the Hero's wife is eloquently realized by the solo violin with some exquisite playing from the First Concertmaster Sara Trobäck. Burnished brass heralds in the battle scene; the pugnacious tenor of the music is visceral in its intensity. At the end there's a satisfying feel of 'job done' and peace and contentment reigns. Nagano keeps a firm grip on the sustained quality of the music with breathtaking effect, ardently sculpting the lyrical phrases.

Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) depicts the aged artist on his deathbed, taking a backward glance to his youth. The work is melodically rich and raptly intense. Nagano contours the ebb and flow of the work with insightful mastery and imagination. The climaxes are effortlessly built up but make an earth-shattering impact when they arrive. The best way I can describe this performance is visionary and suffused with devotional intensity. Wonderful.

The plush sound afforded these two performances showcases Strauss's lush orchestration to perfection. Nagano's finely honed interpretations draw the very best from the scores. He elicits both polish and precision from the Gothenburg players, and his meticulous attention to dynamic gradients adds greatly to the dramatic potency of the readings. Lighter transparent orchestral textures are favoured over the heavy dense thickets of some recordings I've heard. The solo instrumentalists are all expertly balanced in the mix. The performances compete favourably with the very best in the catalogue from the likes of Karajan, Reiner and Kempe, to which I would like to add Barbirolli in Ein Heldenleben.

Stephen Greenbank



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