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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op 40 (1898)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. February 1985, Berlin Philharmonie
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 415 508-2 [46:47]

As I write, there are 94 versions of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) listed in the ArkivMusic catalogue. I accept that several will be multiple repackagings of one performance or another but the fact remains that there are lots. I love this work but am limited in my study of it. Ever since first hearing Rudolf Kempe’s recording back in 1973, I have listened to this version on vinyl, cassette or CD - and that is probably only a handful of times a decade.

The programme of Ein Heldenleben is well known. It is usually (despite denials by the composer) interpreted as being autobiographical: the Hero, like Strauss, is subject to criticism and conspiracies which he duly overcomes. The tone poem is presented in six parts: the first introduces The Hero, with a great sweeping tune which is subsequently varied to showcase his mixed personality traits; the second section introduces his enemies, both vicious and petty; next, is the love music, with the Hero’s lover or companion represented by a solo violin, then back to his enemies for the following section. This is battle music of great power, where quite naturally the Hero wins. In part five, his achievements are reviewed, with significant quotations from Strauss’ own works. Finally, in the last part, the Hero prepares to die. The love theme is heard again, followed by a climactic restatement of the Hero’s theme and then solemn music as he finally expires. Richard Strauss still had 51 years of life left but the carping and criticising never stopped, and continued well beyond his death in 1949. 

Now, I suggest that the listener forget the above programme and should listen to this as a piece of absolute music: a “symphony” with six movements. Ein Heldenleben explores a wide range of human emotion, from power to fear, from love to disdain and from glory to despair. To be sure, there are still the quotations from Strauss works to deal with, but see these simply as half remembered melodies; do not try to evaluate or catalogue them - this has been done many times. I listen to Ein Heldenleben as a wonderfully optimistic work, tinged with sadness and reality – and the scoring is gorgeous.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic have made three (I think) commercial stereo recordings of Ein Heldenleben: 1959, 1974 and 1985. Once again. I confess to having only (knowingly) heard the present eighties version. There is little point in suggesting that Karajan is anything other than authoritative in this reading; he was, after all, one of the great Straussians, both on record and the concert platform. For me, there is never a moment when I lose interest in this performance. He has a superlative understanding of the massive sweep of this score, beginning with the Hero’s theme itself and through the overarching structure of the entire tone poem - and the orchestra are on form here too.  This recording has been criticised as suffering from slow tempi and sound that is too bright, yet for me this slowness, especially in the Epilogue, is perfection.  The “brightness” does remain an issue, but one I can personally overlook.  My final test for Ein Heldenleben is, does it move me? - and the answer is yes, it does. The Hero’s theme often brings a tear to the eye. Perhaps, rather than Richard Strauss, the listener is the true Hero of this work?

The packaging is good. The English liner notes by Michael Kennedy are excellent and there are also notes in German, French and Italian.  No details about the conductor or the orchestra are included, although these are easily available on-line. Finally, the disc length is a bit mean at 47 minutes. Surely another piece could have been found, such as Tod und Verklärung or Don Juan could have been included?

Will I choose Karajan over Kempe in the future when I listen to Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben? Alas it is not an either/or; I do enjoy Kempe’s classical and tasteful reading of this score, so I guess that it could be either - and who knows? I may choose to listen to one of the other great versions such as those by Willem Mengelberg, Fritz Reiner or Thomas Beecham - but I reiterate, for me, there are only so many more listenings to this great work “left in the can”. A fact of life, alas…

John France

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