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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben [47:15]
Burleske [19:46]
Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
Recorded January 2018 (Heldenleben, live) & October 2020 (Burleske) in Auditorium Parco Della Musica, Rome
WARNER CLASSICS 9029502845 [67:04]

Anyone worried that an Italian orchestra can’t convince in Strauss can put their worries aside. This is a disc of a major Strauss tone poem that sounds admittedly rather different to those coming from north of the Alps, but it’s valid and satisfying.

The key is in the string sound. Where the Viennese or the Berliners tap into the darkness of Strauss’s writing for basses and cellos, these Italians play it shot through with sunlight. You sense that right from the opening theme of the Hero, which surges upwards with glorious confidence on the Roman strings but never gives the impression that the hero’s dark side can overwhelm him (as you get in the powerful, deep recordings of Karajan or Thielemann). Even in the battle scene there is a sense of light and shade where nothing is overwhelmed, and the music of the Hero’s Companion is airborne throughout, with a delightful sweep to the solo violin of Roberto González-Monjas.

That leads to losses, too. If you want the battle scene to engulf you then you should look elsewhere; the same if you want the Adversaries to sound like more than snippy toddlers. Indeed, if it’s a completely psychologically penetrating Heldenleben that you want then you should go to Reiner’s classic Chicago recording or, more recently to Nelsons in Birmingham or Jansons in Munich, my top choice at present.

However, there is still plenty to enjoy in Pappano’s reading, one where his experience of Strauss in the theatre comes through repeatedly. This is an interpretation of fine drama and effective contrasts, and he achieves a lovely sense of closure in the final “withdrawal” scene, with a lovely sense of bloom on the final chord. The Warner engineers also deserve credit for both the warmth of the orchestral strings in the love scene and for the clarity with which they’ve captured the harp, not to mention managing the offstage effects well. The wind solos in the “Works of Peace” also sound fantastic.

That finely contrasted drama is also apparent in the Burleske, Strauss’s anti-concerto. As soloist, Bertrand Chamayou has all the rakish wit the part requires, with a hint of danger when needed: some of the faster sections feel as though they’re on the verge of falling apart, even though you know they won’t. However, he is met with some surprising smoothness in the orchestra: Strauss’s second theme, in particular, comes across as gentle, lyrical, even delicate in places. That's thanks to Pappano’s careful shaping of the theme, but also the care that the orchestral musicians lavish on it, and that dynamic fires the whole reading. It doesn’t quite match Danil Trifonov, who remains my first choice for recent recordings of the piece, but it’s still very good indeed.

So both are worth exploring, in their own right and as complements to readings already out there. A major black mark, however, for the person who put the disc together: the final chord of Heldenleben has only just faded when, about five seconds later, the opening drum taps of Burleske begin. It breaks the spell terribly, and with a running time of less than 68 minutes they could easily have built in a break of about ten seconds. Poor!

Simon Thompson

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