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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, TrV 190, Op. 40 (1898) [47:15]
Burleske, for piano and orchestra, TrV 145 (1886) [19:46]
Bertrand Chamayou (piano),
Roberto González-Monjas (violin: Ein Heldenleben)
Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. live, January 2018 (Heldenleben), studio, October 2020 (Burleske), Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy
WARNER CLASSICS 9029502845 [67:04]

The main work on this release is the tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), one of the most admired works in the entire symphonic repertoire. The filler is a less well known Burleske for piano and orchestra. One might not necessarily associate Richard Strauss with the Rome-based Santa Cecilia Orchestra. Yet they were the first Italian orchestra to concentrate purely on symphonic repertoire when so many Italian composers devoted their career to opera that there was a dearth of home-grown symphonic music in the Romantic tradition. It is no surprise, then, that the orchestra has looked predominantly outside Italy for its repertoire. This is borne out by their most recent recordings which, in addition to Rossini’s overtures and Respighi’s Roman trilogy, feature Bernstein, Eötvös, Saint-Saëns, Schumann, Elgar, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Brahms, Dvořák, Beethoven, Mahler, Rachmaninov and Lalo. It comes as no surprise that the orchestra has also been in demand for studio opera recordings, mainly Otello, Aida, Guillaume Tell and Madama Butterfly, and for solo opera collections by Diana Damrau, Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Joyce DiDonato.

Of Strauss’s orchestral works, I have most often encountered Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan and of course Ein Heldenleben. This irresistible orchestral showpiece tells the story of a romantic, imaginary hero. It has love and battle scenes which call for a huge orchestra augmented by extended wind and brass. Written in 1897-1898, it integrates philosophical notions of the Nietzschean hero, and might be easily viewed as a musical portrait of Strauss himself. The exacting score is cast in six broad sections played without a pause. Strauss left no written programme but gave each section a descriptive title.

London-born Antonio Pappano has been music director of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra since 2005. Not just a man of the opera house, Pappano is in his element with the challenges of these magnificently coloured symphonic scenes. The orchestra may play the piece far more often than I imagine, but this live performance feels youthful and fresh, and communicates an uplifting feel of adventure and the joy of discovery. A first-rate live performance, it can draw me into the music as if I were positioned in the middle of the orchestra.

I would single out the lengthy scene three, Des Helden Gefährtin (The Hero’s Companion) which Strauss declared to be a love portrait of his wife the soprano Pauline de Ahna. The players communicate a compelling romantic response. In the renowned solo violin part, a musical depiction of Pauline, concertmaster Roberto González-Monjas’s playing is adept and assured. Pappano’s noteworthy reading of the eventful scene Des Helden Walstatt (The Hero at Battle) brims with energy. There are impressive offstage trumpets in the opening section, lonely and expectant, and the ominous trumpet fanfares over the perilous feel of martial drumming especially at point 1:42. Pappano ensures that climaxes are quickly achieved and carry impressive weight, and that significantly adds to the drama. In the final scene, Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung (The Hero’s Withdrawal from this World and Fulfilment), the powerful climax at 10:34 is quite magnificently done.

My now favourite established recording of Ein Heldenleben is Rudolf Kempe’s outstanding account (review). It feels steadfast and eminently assured, qualities honed by years of experience with the score. My first recording was a 1989 digital remastering, part of a 1992 EMI set. Now there also is a resplendent 2013 remastering, part of Kempe’s nine-CD set of the complete orchestral works of Richard Strauss, reissued in 2019 on Warner Classics. Other recommendations appear at the end of the review.

Strauss was just twenty-one when he wrote Burleske during his term as conductor of the Meininger Hofkapelle. Originally a Scherzo in D minor, it was intended for soloist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who turned down the score. Scherzo means a joke; Strauss renamed the score Burleske but did not explain why (the word alludes to mockery or farce). The liner notes say that Strauss’s letter to his mother described the work as a ‘piano concerto’. He consigned the score to a drawer until soloist Eugen d'Albert gave the delayed first performance under the composer’s baton in 1890 at Eisenach, Thuringia.

I scarcely see Burleske on concert programmes. Even rarer are two other works for piano and orchestra: Parergon zur Sinfonia domestica for piano left hand Op. 73, and Panathenäenzug, symphonic etudes in the form of a passacaglia Op. 74. Evidently Strauss’s mentor von Bülow did not care for the episodic nature of Burleske, a view with which I concur. I have never really warmed to the piece, although I can appreciate a worthy performance of this single-movement concert piece by a composer still finding his own personality and on the cusp of greatness. Toulouse-born Bertrand Chamayou seems very much at home with Burleske’s youthful exuberance. He clearly relishes the formidable virtuosic demands and vicissitudes in the score. Orchestral playing, bright and spirited, adds to the performance.

Among the established recordings of Burleske, I recommend the 1975 account by American pianist Malcolm Frager for his artistry and verve. He is splendidly supported by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe. Remastered in 2013, this account is also in Kempe’s set on Warner Classics. Of the newer recordings, I like the live 2017 account by Daniil Trifonov at Herkulessaal, Munich. He proves to be inordinately perceptive to the emotional ups and downs in this predominantly boisterous work, and gets strong support from the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons (BR-Klassik; review).

Both recordings here were produced in Rome at the Auditorium Parco della Musica, and the engineering team achieved first-class sound. Burleske was recorded in studio conditions. Ein Heldenleben was registered live, so occasionally there is some slight noise from conductor Pappano on the podium, but nothing to be alarmed about. Audience applause has been taken out. David Murray wrote liner notes which provide essential information about each work.

My benchmark among the established recordings of Ein Heldenleben is Kempe’s account. For those requiring a more recent recording, this captivating new release of Antonio Pappano conducting the Santa Cecilia Orchestra should certainly fit the bill. Bertrand Chamayou’s fine performance of the Burleske is a bonus.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Simon Thompson

Other recommended recordings of Ein Heldenleben
Fritz Reiner with Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA, rec. 1954)
Karl Böhm with Staatskapelle Dresden (DG, rec. 1957)
Herbert von Karajan with Berliner Philharmoniker (EMI, rec. 1974)
Ingo Metzmacher with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Challenge Classics, rec. 2007, with the original peaceful conclusion; review)
Mariss Jansons with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (BR Klassik, rec. 2011; review)
Valery Gergiev with Münchner Philharmoniker (MPHIL, rec. 2016; review)

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