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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, op.40 (1898) [44:23]
Metamorphosen, AV142 (1945) [28:55]
San Francisco Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt
Rec. 21–25 February 1992, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Presto CD
DECCA 436 596-2 [73:18]

There is no shortage of very good performances of Richard Strauss’s great tone poem Ein Heldenleben; nor is there a particular shortage of bad ones either (great ones is a different matter entirely). Listening recently to the brand new, remastered version of Barbirolli’s LSO recording (Warner, January 2021) it’s striking how a conductor can come a cropper in this work; Herbert Blomstedt falls into no such traps. But neither are his two recordings of this masterpiece quite of equal stature, and nor do either come close to being great ones.

Blomstedt’s first recording – made with the Dresden Staatskapelle for Denon in 1984 – benefits from an orchestra steeped in a century of Straussian history. The playing is magnificent; indeed, the Dresdener’s are so persuasive they rather leave the impression of giving us almost everything one could want in a great performance of this work. It is that, however, an impression. This Decca recording, reissued under license by Presto CD and made eight years later with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, hardly differs in concept and the orchestra’s playing is equally magisterial. They, too, leave the listener with a vivid impression of this work, albeit a different one from the Dresden orchestra. The problem I have with both of Blomstedt’s performances is that neither have sufficient clarity and detail despite both being very well recorded (Decca’s engineering being a tad superior to Denon’s, which went through at least four pressings). Ein Heldenleben is about detail, it’s all about unknotting those thickets of notes Strauss tangled so tightly together. Blomstedt is not entirely successful at doing this.

Let’s start by saying what Blomstedt is not. He is not an interventionist conductor. Largely we get in his performances of Ein Heldenleben what Richard Strauss wrote. He is not like Mariss Jansons who adds timpani parts (most notably a second at the close of the work); nor is he like John Barbirolli who over scores the timpani to get an entirely more dramatic effect, extraordinarily thrilling as it is (in the ‘Kriegsfanfaren’, for example). (Barbirolli’s fascination with the timpani effect extends beyond this tone poem – his Hallé Symphonie fantastique is worth hearing just for the opening of the ‘Marche au supplice’ alone.) Blomstedt’s tendency to be rather direct and to the point – actually less an issue in his younger years than his later ones – often finds him in conflict with some of the works he conducts – like Ein Heldenleben. There is no denying the electrifying intensity he gets in some parts of the work, but it comes at the expense of its shape, colour and instrumental contours.

The first thing one notices from the very opening of ‘Der Held’ is the power of the San Francisco strings. This is, in fact, one of the great blessings of this Decca recording – the San Francisco strings are gloriously captured with a radiance one might not have expected to hear from this orchestra. One recording it recalls is Karajan’s very first on DG with the Berliner Philharmoniker – still his finest commercial recording in my view. I can only comment on the Japanese SACD of this performance but the sound of the orchestra is relayed with astonishing presence; we get much the same with the San Francisco Symphony here. Moreover, we do not have much glare to the orchestra. Decca’s recording is warm, the tone is rich – pretty much ideal for Strauss tone poems.

But there the comparison between the two orchestras and the two conductors largely ends. We only have to listen to ‘Des Helden Friedenswerke’ and the magnificent climax at the Im zeitmass marking (m.93 in my score – Leuckart/Lepizig). Before we hear the actual climax, Strauss has written several pages for the harps, almost none of which are audible in Blomstedt’s recording; Karajan, on the other hand, bothers to let us hear them. The effect is intensely magical, rather as Strauss intended it to be (Sinopoli is entirely forensic in highlighting such details).

It is not as if Blomstedt is persistently lazy with Straussian details because he isn’t. The opening to ‘Des Helden Widersacher’ is as characteristic and charming as any modern version in the catalogue. The voicing of the woodwind goes beyond the mere orchestral; often it sounds operatic. There is, for example, much to admire in David Krehbiel’s effortless, yet precise horn solos. Raymond Kobler’s solo violin yields nothing to Michel Schwalbé’s on Karajan’s 1959 recording and yet their heroes are cut from very different cloths. Kobler is searingly confident, giving us a swashbuckling narration throughout; Schwalbé is the very definition of nobility, his icy precision almost a mirror to Karajan’s trenchantly arrogant approach to much of this score.

Blomstedt’s ‘Des Helden Welstatt’ is thrilling; Karajan’s is like a juggernaut, but no less thrilling because of the onslaught the Berliners leave in their wake. The San Francisco Symphony leave no doubt as to their collective virtuosity in a section that trips up many an orchestra. Come to the ‘Entsagung’ [3’47] on track 6 and Blomstedt’s American orchestra give one of the most beautifully played performances of it on disc. A stunning oboe and horn lead into it, but it’s the wonderful arc of the cellos, and, most unusually, the undertow of the bassline which so often gets lost in performances, which leaves the greatest impression.

This Blomstedt/San Francisco Ein Heldenleben has many qualities – fine orchestral playing, superb Decca sound – though it lacks a great Straussian conductor’s insights into many parts of this score. There are other performances that offer richer rewards: Karajan/BPO (1959, DG) and Sinopoli/SKD (Profil) are two of the standout ones. The LSO/Barbirolli recording is at times the most infuriating, glorious, wilful and stunning studio performance ever made of this work. It is easy to detest it, but its very luridness is irresistible. Listeners who want something more challenging (as if the Barbirolli wasn’t enough) should track down recordings by Celibidache (DG), Carlos Kleiber (VPO, 1993, Memories), Karajan (BPO, Moscow 1969, Melodiya) and Sinopoli (Philharmonia, London 1990, Proms Broadcast).

Decca’s coupling for this release is Blomstedt’s February 1992 recording of Metamorphosen made at the same recording sessions in Davies Hall. It is one of the more spacious performances on disc (just over 28-minutes), and for much of the time certainly feels it. Blomstedt takes a very slow opening tempo – much slower than Barbirolli does with the Philharmonia in their recording – and it just sounds lugubrious (less of a problem for the Eroica quotation at the end, however). I’m not sure spaciousness implies intensity since I find myself getting lost in the first eleven or so minutes of Blomstedt’s performance. It is undeniably beautiful, but this is not a Metamorphosen that leaves much of a devastating impression behind it. It’s true that the second half of the work picks up momentum, but Decca’s recording – which exposes the beauty of the strings in a rather flat and two-dimensional setting – does little to provide anything other than an aesthetic drawing rather than a full-scale painting to this listener. It would seem that Blomstedt’s tempo for Metamorphosen have remained entirely consistent over the decades. In 2017 with the Wiener Philharmoniker he took just under 29 minutes in a performance given in Salzburg.

Blomstedt’s two Strauss cycles have variable availability. His Dresden cycle on Denon is unavailable outside Japan (and I’d be wary of buying second hand recordings unless you know which pressing you are getting). This San Francisco Ein Heldenleben can be bought in a complete boxed set (13 CDs), as part of a twofer for download or as an on-demand CD from Presto. The sound is excellent, the performance the better of Blomstedt’s two studio recordings and a thrilling modern version, if not among the towering greats.

Marc Bridle

Previous review (original release): Tim Perry



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