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Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben - A survey of the major recordings
By Ralph Moore

Whereas most people of my generation were alerted to the magnetic power of Strauss’ music by the fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra, for me, it was Eugene Ormandy’s stereo recording of Ein Heldenleben which set me on the path of lifelong devotion to his tone poems. Given the size of orchestra demanded and the density of the score, the work begs for the best sound, but I have included several historical recordings below for obvious reasons. A first recommendation, however, must have spacious sonics.

It was written in 1898, after the failure of Strauss’ first opera Guntram but at the end of a series of successful tone poems. It is the work of a confident young man, cast in identifiable sections as below but through-composed in one movement. It follows the example of Beethoven’s Eroica by giving prominence to the horns in the ensembles but is in part almost a violin concerto, too, giving a large and challenging role to the concert leader. It is representative of heroism in general but also clearly autobiographical in its narrative content, being packed full of musical quotations from Strauss’ earlier works, as if he were an old man looking back on his career instead of a 34-year-old enfant terrible - but those who accuse Strauss of displaying an outsize ego are missing the fact that his heroic self-portrayal is also humorous and ironic. Those personal elements most obviously derived from Strauss’ experience are his portrayals of his mercurial wife Pauline via the solo violin and of his spiteful, hostile critics, led by Eduard Hanslick - about whom the more I read, the more I wonder which is worse: his aesthetic philosophy or his practical music criticism; he roundly deserves Wagner’s caricature of him as Beckmesser and Strauss’ shrill, angular, minor-key portrayal of his detractors as narrow-minded grouches and it has been speculated that Hanslick, is specifically depicted by a motive in parallel fifths, played, ironically, on the Wagner-Tuba. Critical response in general was predictably uncomprehending and vituperative, even England, where Strauss’ music was usually welcomed, but was here dubbed by Arthur Johnson of The Guardian as “a monstrous excrescence…insanity” - but Sibelius’ aphorism about no-one ever erecting a statue to a critic comes to mind, and it has long established itself as a favourite programme item for a large orchestra and of course it has also been profusely recorded, hence this survey.

There is probably something over a hundred recordings, but I think the extensive selection below of 55 of those covers most of the main ones. Having surveyed eight major Strauss works – seven operas, three tone poems and the Four Last Songs – I can now confidently assert that there is a certain air of inevitability about the inclusion of Karajan in my recommendations; he was the ne plus ultra of Strauss conductors, not without rival but certainly always among the top contenders for best versions, and I consider what looks like his continuing search for the perfect performance/recording below under its own, discrete section of reviews. He had a lifelong love of the piece, and gave something like seventy performances of it between 1933 and 1988 so I will happily disregard spoiler alerts and say anyone who loves this work will want at least one recording by him. But fear not: if you are Karajan-phobic, there are plenty of alternatives. The two orchestras most frequently encountered here are the BPO with Karajan (five times!), Mehta and Rattle, and the VPO, which is the most widely encountered, playing – beautifully, of course – under six different conductors.

I have tried to acknowledge and link previous reviews from MusicWeb colleagues; apologies if I have missed some.

The sections
(Strauss eventually had these titles removed from the score but they are useful as a guide to the novice listener.)

"Der Held" (The Hero)
"Des Helden Widersacher" (The Hero's Adversaries)
"Des Helden Gefährtin" (The Hero's Companion)
"Des Helden Walstatt" (The Hero at Battle)
"Des Helden Friedenswerke" (The Hero's Works of Peace)
"Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung" (The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion)

The Recordings
I first consider both Mengelberg’s famous recordings together, as they have both been remastered by Pristine and bear comparison in that they are very similar, but with a couple of crucial differences:

Willem Mengelberg/The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 1928; studio mono, Pearl/Pristine Audio [40:59]
Willem Mengelberg/Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, 1941; live mono, Naxos/Pristine Audio [41:32]

I can assure you that the difference in sound quality between the Pearl and RCA issues of the 1928 recording and the Pristine XR remastering is that between night and day: there is a wonderful warmth, depth and amplitude to Andrew Rose’s refurbishment which makes this vintage classic sound like something from the late 40’s. Furthermore, this is actually better played than Mengelberg’s later recording with the Concertgebouw: both the orchestra and the violin soloist are considerably more impressive - and I don’t mind Mishel Piastro lush playing, dripping with portamento. I refer you to Lynn René Bayley’s comparative review from Fanfare included in the note for the Pristine issue as I have nothing more to add.

The technology of the era meant that it had to be patched together from a series of short takes but there is nonetheless a sweep and cohesion about it that belies its origin – especially now Pristine have hidden the joins so cunningly.
The Naxos issues of the 1941 performance were approvingly reviewed two decades ago on its release by no fewer than three Music Web critics: Jonathan Woolf, John Phillips and Tony Duggan and again, I refer you to their perceptive comments regarding its aesthetic virtues, but Pristine’s issue surpasses that.

Arturo Toscanini/NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1941; live Ambient Stereo, Pristine Audio [42:33]

As you might expect, for Toscanini, an early champion of Strauss until their relationship soured for obvious reasons, the thrust and line of the music are more important than polish and detail and if it sometimes sounds scruffy, the compensation is in the excitement of its momentum – even if at first I could wish that Arturo would come up for air and take a breath, this is such a headlong rush and there are moments when the NBC begins to sound like an Italian village band instead of a streamlined metropolitan outfit. However, despite his manic drive in the fast passages, Toscanini soon settles down for the love music and generously provides his concertmaster Mischa Mischakoff with all the time and space he needs to create a winning portrait of Pauline. The Battlefield passage is absolutely thrilling; the performance crackles with nervous tension and Toscanini grunts and shouts his way through it, exhorting his players to ever greater heights – but is then gloriously expansive in the reprise of the love music and the apotheosis.

There is a Music & Arts release of this live broadcast but it is not as good Pristine’s transfer into Ambient Stereo, described by Fanfare magazine as “yet another triumph for Andrew Rose” – and it’s true; the sound has come up a treat – especially in comparison with Strauss’ own recording in the same year. The balance between sections is excellent; there is a little coughing and the superb solo violinist is very prominent – but who minds that, when his playing is so virtuosic? Deservedly enthusiastic applause breaks out immediately after the last notes and is retained.

Richard Strauss/Bayerisches Staatsorchester, 1941; studio mono, DG [39:30]
Richard Strauss/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1944; studio mono, Urania [37:19]

I was thinking that it’s a pity that Pristine have not tackled either of these recordings – or is that perhaps because the composer’s famously laconic conducting style translates into what must be accounted a fairly similar and routine accounts? As a consequence, the sound in both remains rather harsh in the 1941 account and fairly distant and mushy in 1944 – not by any means unlistenable but neither is anywhere near as immediate as Pristine’s revitalisation of the other vintage recordings here. The solo violinists - Placidus Morasch and Willi Boskovsky respectively - are admirable, if rushed. These are very fast, direct and no-nonsense – again, by no means bad but at times rhythmically a bit lax and slapdash, and not as characterful or expressive as, for example, what Strauss’ friend and dedicatee Mengelberg does with his music or how subsequent conductors shape and time it. These are performances of their era and certainly interesting because they demonstrate how Strauss really did “just let the music speak for itself” but conductors are notoriously inclined to underplay, under-interpret or even play badly their own music and I am not especially inclined to turn to either of these first when I want the Strauss buzz.

Clemens Krauss/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1944; studio mono, Testament [45:43]

As with most of Strauss’ tone poems, his younger friend and champion Clemens Krauss recorded Ein Heldenleben with Willi Boskovsky and the VPO, rather better, I think, than Strauss himself did. The first surprise is how full and clear the mono sound is, despite a little peaking and sourness in the violins – but this hardly needs the Pristine treatment. Also immediately noticeable are the drive and vigour of Krauss’ direction. The next bonus is the playing of long-time leader Willi Boskovsky who characterises vividly but whose tone is not quite as luscious as Toscanini’s soloist. There is the occasional coordination problem but the orchestra already knows the work well and Krauss really delivers in the climaxes, reining back before letting fly. It is very fine but I still find Toscanini more thrilling.

Sir Thomas Beecham/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1947; studio mono, Testament [43:29]

Testament gives us good mono sound for the era, with considerable depth and a minimum of hiss and swish even if it a tad reverberant, and you can hear the spring in Sir Thomas’ conducting what sounds like a crack orchestra – because it was. The way he shapes phrases and caresses dynamics points to his long acquaintance with the work; he first conducted it in 1919 and was the first to invite Strauss to London after the war as a gesture of reconciliation.

There is no shortage of panache or swagger here and Oscar Lampe is a splendid soloist with an exceptionally dark, fruity timbre - but of course Beecham re-recorded this a decade later in stereo, and that must be preferable.

* * *

Stereo era onwards:

Fritz Reiner/ Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1954; studio stereo, RCA [43:37]

This was the very first recording Reiner made with the CSO and has endured remarkably well and is the favourite of many punters. Its early stereo sound is remarkably incisive, as is the playing and direction – what an achievement for a recording not far short of seventy years old. Remastering has removed hiss without in the least denting the dynamic range or neutralising acuti and the bass frequencies are satisfyingly resonant. The precision and homogeneity of the Chicago orchestra are marvels and first violin John Weicher is equally acute and characterful. A special mention must go to the virtuoso trumpeter in the “Battlefield” sequence, too. You have the sense that Reiner is completely in control of the shaping and linkage of the separate sections and his conception emerges as a truly coherent whole, without longueurs or any self-conscious point-making. This is a lean, dynamic account with never a dull moment – and it’s not all thrills; the lyrical passages such as the “Hero’s Works of Peace” are exquisitely phrased.

There is every good reason why this vintage version has endured as a classic.

Karl Böhm/Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, 1956; studio stereo, [41:43]

The early stereo sound here is a bit thin and tinny but Böhm’s verve and attack are really infectious; this is a fast, furious performance with speeds similar to Strauss’ own but far more snap and drive. It’s all a bit hectic and the poor sound makes it sound even more confused and congested but the timpani are much better balanced compared to their recessed positioning in the sound picture in Böhm’s late recording with the VPO. Erich Mühlbach is a more characterful and vivacious soloist than his Vienna counterpart, too. Enjoyable though it be, this remains a vintage recording and sounds it, so you’d do better with Reiner’s even older but better engineered classic version if you want something from the 50’s.

Sir Thomas Beecham/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, 1957; studio stereo, EMI [43:02]

Some would claim that this second recording, made late in Beecham’s career, has less pep and verve than the mono 78s first version made a decade earlier - and I am inclined to agree, although the gains in stereo sound are hardly negligible and this is still an authoritative account, fast, driven and rhythmically snappy, with the same, great orchestra, stuffed with virtuosi instrumentalists. Stephen Staryk excels in the violin solos. This is decidedly a broader approach than previously; Beecham is also good at capturing the darker, swirling, “Sibelian” mood at the start of the “Des Helden Widersacher”, for example, and the love music is tenderer. Maybe the depictions of the adversaries and the battlefield are not quite as pointed and violent but they are still very effective and the whooping horns at the victorious climax are magnificent. No Beecham fan will be disappointed.

* * *

The Karajan recordings

Herbert von Karajan/New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 1958; live mono, Urania/Pristine Audio [47:16]

Urania has done its usual good remastering job but its efforts are superseded by Pristine’s Ambient Stereo issue, with removed hiss and harshness and given some body to the sound – but I am genuinely puzzled as to why such a poorly recorded account should have merited Andrew Rose’s time and expert attention when we have so many other, superior versions by Karajan – especially as his interpretation changed little over the years. The NYP is clearly a superior outfit to the LAP below, John Corigliano Sr.’s solo violin contributions are admirable and this has historical interest - but not as much as the Moscow tour and the sound is still distant and unflattering, complete with loud, uncaring audience coughing. Really: why bother?

Herbert von Karajan/Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1959; live mono, Urania [45:11]

On the “Karajan Live 4” disc from Urania, as with the New York recording from the previous year, this is well remastered but still in hissy, wiry mono sound and while it bears all the trademarks of Karajan’s mastery of the score, he is conducting what was still a good, but not first-rank, orchestra in a live performance in which there are inevitably blips and imprecisions, so again, I really cannot see who wants this other than Karajan completists and historical buffs.
Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1959; stereo studio, DG [45:35]

There is a certain irony in the fact that despite Karajan spending thirty years performing and recording Ein Heldenleben, for many people this first recording remains his best. The stereo sound is superb, Michel Schwalbé’s violin solos are the BPO plays magnificently and this is a beautifully balanced, yet energised rendition. The culmination of the fourth “Battlefield” section is overwhelming and the conclusion sublime.

I am astonished by the negative review this receives in Classics Today, which claims that Karajan “never really convincingly brought off the piece” because he played it too slowly and magisterially and bass is deficient. Hmm. I beg to differ.

Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1969; live stereo, Melodiya

This is an important historical document but surely ruled out by its sound, which is considerably better than the live performances from Los Angles and New York a decade earlier but still a bit raw and papery. Again, unless you are a Karajan completist, you might want to hear this a couple of times to soak up the atmosphere of a ground-breaking trip which was a forerunner to Glasnost, but for repeated listening – why, when you can move on to the nest two recordings or retreat to the studio recording of 1959?

Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1974; studio stereo, EMI [45:27]

EMI eventually abandoned the Stereo-Quad sound here but it is gloriously rich and deep and on the original LP issue its plushness was complemented by the James Bond cover, featuring Herbie clad in menacing black leather, framed against glaring spotlights, one of which seems to blaze out of his crotch in splendidly Alpha Male display fashion. The extra dimension the sound affords shows off the sonority of that remarkable orchestra and once again the sweetness and precision of Schwalbé’s contributions are a delight. The central section of “Das Thema der Siegesgewissheit” flirts with stasis but carries it off and the ensuing battle is monumental, with timpani more prominent than in the earlier studio recording and the horns are – well, heroic, just as Strauss intended. All the moods of this piece are encompassed, the Hero’s Works of Peace passage is tranquil and refined after all the bombast, then there is massive certainty and assurance to the chord which opens the fifth and final section, heading towards the serene apotheosis of a young man who sees death only in terms of triumph and fulfilment rather than dissolution.

Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1985; studio digital, DG [46:47]

I have seen this digital remake damned as “unlistenable”, “suffering from excessive brightness”, “multi-mike and multi-tracked” to the extent that there is “no stereo image” – then the performance condemned for its slow tempi.

Taking the last criticism first, as was so often the case with Karajan’s overall timings and his conception of the relationship between the sections internally did not change over his career and his timings differ by no more than two minutes over thirty years although yes, certain passages are marginally broader – but the longest is in fact the most exciting of all, the live RFH performance reviewed immediately below. I think much of the negativity derives from immutable anti-Karajan prejudice; if the same recording came out under the name of a conductor darling the carpers would be drooling over it.

Regarding the supposedly brittle sound, the severest criticisms presumably applied to the first issue, as once the treble peaking of the original had been tamed for the Gold Edition, it was great - and this was the version DG chose for their illiterately entitled “Collectors (sic) Edition” whereas a few years later they reverted to the 1959 recording for the big, LP-sized, “Limited Edition” Deluxe Box-set - which confirms my feeling that both are worthy accounts but for me this is the most satisfying of all three studio versions, having all the virtues of the earlier two enhanced by stupendous, improved sonics.

Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1985; live digital, Testament [47:36]

Obviously the live sound here, slightly compromised by ambient noise and the acoustic of the pre-remodelled Royal Festival Hall, which manages to sound simultaneously both reverberant and slightly dead, does not compare with the studio recordings, but there is a special electricity to hearing a virtually immobilised Karajan galvanise the world’s finest orchestra in a performance which is alternately tender and poetic, then energised and thrilling; the Battlefield is cosmic in its drive and resonance as in no other account I know, and the victory paean starting at 6:06 culminating at 7:39 is magnificent. Minor sonic issues notwithstanding, this is a winner.

* * *

Leopold Ludwig/London Symphony Orchestra, 1959, studio stereo, Everest [42:25]

This was Len Mullenger’s choice in the MusicWeb Survey of Our Favorite Neglected Recordings organised by Mike Parr last year and Rob Maynard reviewed it approvingly with the proviso that the volume needs an upward tweak – and of course, he is right. I refer you to those two colleagues’ judgement for more detail.

This is typical of those recordings which do everything right and about which is hard to find much to say except I understand why, if this were your first experience of the work, it would retain its place in your affections. It’s really sonorous and rhythmically sharp, reminding me of my favourite Everest recording, Stokowski’s Francesca da Rimini (which Rob mentions in his review) and the only other time I have encountered the conductor is in his recording of Wagner duets with Hans Hotter and Birgit Nilsson, made shortly before this Ein Heldenleben and now on Testament, but he really knows his way around this work and LSO leader Hugh Maguire is a first-rate soloist, very clearly place left of centre in the soundscape, and the stereo spread is excellent – although someone appears to open then slam a door at 1:05 in Des Helden Gefährtin during his solo and during the recording a few other extraneous noises obtruded in and around Walthamstow Assembly Hall.

Eugene Ormandy/ Philadelphia Orchestra, 1960; studio stereo, Sony [44:27]

I admit to being quite unable to be objective about this recording as it was the medium whereby I first came to know this music and first loves linger powerfully. Having said that, I don’t think I would have fallen in love with it so completely had not so much about it been superlative, from the glaring but vivid 60’s stereo sound with its wide dynamic range to the extraordinary thrust and vitality of what was undoubtedly the greatest orchestra on the US at the time under a conductor who, on a good day, was inspirational. I love the way Ormandy pulls back in tempo and gauges the pauses before launching the big moments; this is grand, brash playing of huge confidence, security and elan. Concertmaster Anshel Brusilow is a wonderful violin soloist, displaying a huge range of tone and extraordinary dexterity and personality and as for the orchestra as a whole – well, as Ormandy said during a rehearsal, "Relax. Don't be nervous. My God, it's the Philadelphia Orchestra!" There is such a sheen on the strings and every section is virtuosic and climaxes are volcanic.

As you might have gathered, I quite like this one.

Pierre Monteux/Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1962; live stereo, Pristine Audio [47:34]

I reviewed this in 2016 and here is the edited portion relevant to this recording:

Pierre Monteux had a very long-standing and highly successful relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, going back to his appointment as its chief conductor in 1919; this concert was recorded two years before his death when he was 87 years old. These are big, released performances played with the kind of zest, energy and brio of which Toscanini, his similarly long-lived contemporary, would have approved.

Pristine has given these “slightly hard-sounding stereo source recordings” excellent sound for their era and provenance; there is a little light background coughing but otherwise they are virtually indistinguishable from studio products – except for a strange, very audible pre-echo episode 21 seconds into track 10 and a passing aeroplane at the end of the symphony. Nonetheless, unless you specifically want a souvenir of this conductor, neither work is necessarily preferable to established catalogue classics in even better sound.

This is sharp and driven; Monteux steams through this gigantic symphonic poem, drawing virtuosic playing from his orchestra, especially some exquisite solo playing from the lead violinist in “Des Helden Gefährtin”…and the trumpets and horns in “Des Helden Walstatt” are epic.

Perhaps this live performance from the hallowed ground of Tanglewood isn’t anyone’s first choice but it makes a great souvenir of a much-loved conductor in his golden years shortly before his death.

* * *

Like Karajan, Mehta has returned to this work many times over his long career, so I am considering three of recordings together here:

Zubin Mehta/Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1968; studio, stereo, Decca [45:20]

This is a grand, glamorous account with a superb contribution from violin soloist David Frisna and an orchestra in great form. Part of that allure lies in Decca’s superb sound which enhances what is essentially an excellent, but not necessarily great, orchestra and a performance which is wholly satisfying without being anything especially distinctive. Mehta is good at bringing out inner detail and his woodwind are especially characterful – Viennese sounding, in fact, but hyped-up Hollywood style. I don’t mean that this is vulgar – in Strauss? Come on, man…it’s just Technicolor.

This was unavailable for a long time except as part of the Decca 6 CD box set of Strauss: The Tone Poems, and the 38-disc Zubin Mehta / Los Angeles Philharmonic - Complete Decca Recordings, but it has previously been issued on a Decca twofer and now Eloquence has reissued it.

Zubin Mehta/New York Philharmonic, 1982; studio; digital, CBS [47:00]

Obviously the temptation to remake in digital sound is compelling but this is a rather routine, lacklustre affair both sonically and interpretatively compared with the Los Angeles recording. The rhythms simply have no bite or spring – I really don’t understand it – and the sound is rather dull and recessed. Things perk up a bit in the battlefield but there seems always to be a veil over proceedings and little makes the listener sit up. There is simply nothing here superior, or even equal, to the previous version; phrase after phrase seems to drag and limp and although it is only two minutes longer than the Decca version, it seems considerably slower.

Moving on…or back to Decca…

Zubin Mehta/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1992; live, stereo, Sony [46:58]

You immediately hear both a better orchestra and better sound than in the previous recording - albeit a bit tubby and bass heavy and somewhat too distanced in aural perspective, this being obviously live, with a bit of audience noise - but I still wouldn’t say this was as glossy and invigorating as the Los Angeles outing and there could certainly more bile and fire in Mehta’s portrayal of the critics here. I still find myself still enjoying this; there is some lovely solo work from Daniel Stabrawa and the lush, lyrical sections are dreamy. The sheer amplitude of the orchestral sound in “Des Helden Walstatt” is impressive but given the option, I would stick with his earliest recording, as overall, this is not as gripping an experience. – In fact, the pattern over Mehta’s three recordings is similar to the history of his recordings of Sinfonia domestica, as per my previous survey: the earliest LAO recording is the best, the middle period stuff is less satisfactory and the later digital version is good but not as good as that youthful first one.

This is the version included in the 8 CD Sony bargain box which is a mixed bag.

* * *

Sir John Barbirolli/London Symphony Orchestra, 1969; studio stereo, EMI [50:34]

First of all, good equipment, excellent stereo sound and remastering allows us to hear Sir John intermittently sniff, grunt, croon and groan all through this recording, so if that bugs you, turn away now. Secondly, he respectively takes a full eleven and thirteen minutes longer over the work than its composer in his two recordings, which again might be a warning sign for some. Certainly, its critics talking about this being a wallow and there is no denying that moments are indeed ponderous – but lethargic? No. The LSO make a big, creamy sound and at times the double basses remind me of Saint-Saëns’ tortoises, but there is a certain monumental grandeur to proceedings which some listeners might find seductive. Nevertheless, there were a couple of points in “Des Helden Gefährtin” – I know has its longueurs for some listeners – when I wonder whether the orchestra has decided to take an impromptu tea-break. Leader John Georgiadis plays languorously and elegantly but by the time we get to the Battle the playing, however detailed and accurate, is too flat-footed to take off.
When the timpani start up in the “Kriegsfanfaren” it sounds as if the garbage truck is arriving, not the cavalry, and it never manages to get out of second gear – and incidentally the horns are several times in trouble in this section towards the end.

As much as I usually love Barbirolli, I think he seriously miscalculated his approach to this piece.

Bernard Haitink/Concertgebouw Orchestra 1970; studio stereo, Philips [47:14]

A lot of people will have been introduced to this work via this and, believe me, they could have done a lot worse. The sound is terrific for an analogue recording fifty years old – as was so often the case with Philips in this era - and the sheer opulence of the Concertgebouw is a joy – they rival all the great bands for depth and sonority. Even though the timing on paper is on the leisurely side, the contrast between the fast and slow sections is palpable and Haitink doesn’t let their relationship fragment; he maintains their unity. The distinctive sweetness and precision of Hermann Krebbers’ solo violin, with his shimmering vibrato and minutely grade dynamics, are wholly apt for portraying feminine wiles; he makes other violinists sound relatively homogeneous and I think he is the best of all the soloists here. This impassioned, lyrical and energised by turns – in fact, one of the best Haitink recordings I have heard – and very much better than his later performance with the Chicago SO (see below). There is no “Dutch” restraint or “sensibleness” here – the orchestra sounds released and fluid; it’s just great.

Rudolf Kempe/ Staatskapelle Dresden, 1973; studio stereo, EMI [44:86]

Kempe was a master Straussian and if anyone rivalled Karajan is this domain, it was he, especially as he had the other greatest German orchestra at his disposal. There is a warm glow to that orchestral sound and a really purposeful drive to his direction here, in a performance which sets the right tone from the very first notes, such that as soon as I started playing this again, I forgot why I was doing so and was swept along by its momentum. I admit to having revised my opinion of Kempe in this work; I originally found him to be “too civilised” (c.f. my review of Monteux above) but have now warmed to his manner and find him more exciting, even if he does not, perhaps, provide the visceral thrills of some other exponents. First violin Peter Mirring plays most seductively and the Dresden brass is superb, especially the horns.

Even if it is not as vivid as modern digital recordings, this has plenty of bass punch and is slightly brisker and somewhat sharper sound, revealing of more detail, than the live performance on next Profil below - and I prefer it.

Rudolf Kempe/Staatskapelle Dresden, 1974; live stereo, Profile Hänssler [46:05]
Unsurprisingly, this has the same virtues as the preceding recording made the year before but is in tubbier sound and is a very slightly more leisurely, measured performance, so I see no reason to prefer it over the studio recording unless you want its (excellent) pairings in this Profil 2 CD set.

Kurt Sanderling/ BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, 1975; live stereo, BBC Legends [42:48]

Rob Maynard reviewed this very enthusiastically a decade ago and as I agree with his every word, I refer to that review for more information. It is indeed a sensitive, detailed live performance; Sanderling was perhaps one of the great unsung conductors and like Rob, I never heard anything by him that I do not like. As neither the sound - which is somewhat hissy and distant - nor the orchestra is the very best in comparison with the competition, I would not necessarily endorse it as a top choice but it does not disappoint on its own terms and Sanderling certainly elicits the best out of them, with an especially fine contribution from leader Barry Griffiths.

Karl Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1976; studio stereo, DG [44:40]

Conducted with linear clarity but little passion and poor balance between the timpani and the rest of the orchestra, this isn’t going to feature on anyone’s list of favourites. This sounds more like “the accountant” than the hero and violin soloist Gerhart Hetzel plays neatly but sedately. This is billed as DG as a “late recording” and I am afraid it sounds like just that. Böhm’s recording two decades earlier in Dresden is so much more invigorated and invigorating.

Lorin Maazel/The Cleveland Orchestra, 1977; studio, stereo, CBS [42:32}

This is great: nervy, pacy and driven – the best of Maazel in Strauss before he became wilful and indulgent. This is not the most exciting or energised of accounts but it is beautifully shaped and detailed. There is nothing special about this but it swings along without any longueurs, is beautifully played and recorded. Likewise, soloist Daniel Majeske is not outstanding but is more than capable of rising to the challenges of the violin solos. Maazel is in a hurry here, but his urgency is infectious. I guess what I miss in this recording is a sense of breadth and majesty to match, complement and contrast with its drive and urgency. There is a lovely atmosphere of peace and repose in the final section – but then I do not really experience the same exaltation I experience with grander accounts.

Sir Georg Solti/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1977-78; studio stereo, Decca [44:03]

I found Solti’s Eine Alpensinfonie to be something of a rushed disappointment but here is the Solti I like and recognise. His style and manner are surely ideally suited this work – and indeed, it is lean, clear, propulsive and dynamic, as you might expect, enhanced by Decca’s superb mid 70s analogue sound. The VPO are in best form: weighty, sonorous, flawlessly tuned and coordinated, with that grainy, pungent woodwind timbre which is so distinctive and a virtuosic contribution from leader Rainer Küchl, who produces a stream of succulent, pulsing tone. Solti surges and soars through the score with an unerring sense of pacing, phrasing and drama, really driving home the big moments by relaxing and letting the orchestra sing, such as at the climax of the love music in track 3; the last three minutes share the same ecstatic mood as the highpoints of his Ring and there is no danger of his lapsing into the relentlessness which can mar some of his recordings. This is one of those recordings which makes me forget I am reviewing and simply sweeps me up in its grasp; it rivals Karajan’s for sheer power, poetry and transcendence.

Seiji Ozawa/ Boston Symphony Orchestra 1981; studio digital, Philips [45:53]

Ozawa is another “singalong” conductor – such an indulgent habit, especially when it is this intrusive and I would mind less if the investment that indicates were manifested in a more energised performance – but this is a rather underpowered and routine affair, with flabby rhythms and a lack of dynamic variation. The critics are having a grumpy natter rather than hurling vituperation and I have rarely heard an account of this work delivered with such imperturbable equanimity – a dispassionate reaction shared by the soloist Joseph Silverstein, who sounds less than involved and the battle is a non-event. There is much better to be had…

Árpád Joó/Philharmonia Orchestra, 1983; studio digital, Sefel/Arts Music [45:51]

A rather remote acoustic and a very low transfer volume compromises the impact of this recording – and, in truth, the interpretation itself is in any case a bit routine – although Christopher Warren-Green is as sweet-toned and expressive as ever in the violin solos. There is nothing wrong with Joó’s tempi or phrasing but I feel as though this never gets going and the engineering is an insurmountable issue.

Vladimir Ashkenazy/The Cleveland Orchestra, 1984; studio digital, Decca [43:35]

Ashkenazy is a great musician and has been an important figure in the musical world for sixty years but I will admit to approaching his achievements as a conductor with caution. This, however, is a fine account, with – as is so often the case I have found in this survey – first-rate sound and superb orchestral playing and marks a considerable advance on the recording Maazel made with the Clevelanders eight years earlier. For a start, Ashkenazy keeps thing brisk and alert; just a few minutes in the overall timing of this work can make the difference between the desired propulsiveness and a sense of lethargy but where Maazel missed some of the sweep and majesty of the piece, Ashkenazy gives the music time to bloom and breathe, and leader Daniel Majeske is more varied and characterful here. The love music is especially expansive and the harps come through deliciously, just as the rat-a-tat and thunder of the timpani are really striking in the Battlefield section, in which there is no lack of attack (forgive the weak pun). Everything is right about this one and I happily eat my words about having reservations concerning Ashkenazy’s conducting; this is broad, majestic, vital, vivid, then serene by turns. If I do not make it a first choice, that is simply because I find special qualities in a couple of other recordings – but no-one will be disappointed by it.

Neeme Järvi/Scottish National Orchestra, 1986; studio digital, Chandos [46:18]

I was taken by surprise by the high quality of Järvi’s Sinfonia domestica with the same orchestra on the same label, recorded a year before this almost equally as impressive a recording. There is a swinging naturalness about his direction which I find wholly engaging – and both the broad acoustic and virtuosic playing enhance that sense of purpose and direction. I am gradually coming to the realisation that I have either neglected or undervalued Järvi Senior’s worth as a conductor. There is nothing especially distinctive about this but everything is done right. There is plenty of verve, power and animation of the battlefield passage. Edwin Paling is not the most charismatic or individual of soloists but his playing is sensitive and refined and he is especially soulful in the concluding section, which has a lovely, poised serenity about it.

I find the recording volume a little low but that is easily rectified’ it must be said, however, that Järvi Junior is inevitably given better sound thirty years later (see below). This is not the most electrifying recording I know but the sweep of the big moments is certainly satisfying; sample 7:22 and 8:39 in "Des Helden Walstatt" to hear the proof; there is no sense in which the Scottish orchestra can be found wanting.

André Previn/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1988; studio stereo, Telarc [46:06]

Given that both Previn and the VPO have such a dependable track record in Strauss, and that pairing produced several superb Strauss recordings for DG and Telarc, as per here, it is reasonable to expect great things of this one. The Telarc engineering is typically superlative and the depth and sonority of those Viennese strings are immediately noticeable; this is, after all, the orchestra most frequently associated with the work along with their equally illustrious Berlin counterparts and does indeed prove worthy to stand alongside Previn’s other Strauss recordings with the VPO. As with those other outings, this is a grand, occasionally ponderous account, replete with beautiful touches and stately as a galleon, with Rainer Küchl once again contributing some opulent solo playing. It’s playing in which you can luxuriate, but the element of wildness I like in the more animated sections is under-played. This mattered less in pieces such as Metamorphosen – obviously – or the Sinfonia domestica – but here, that’s crucial, so good as it is, it is not a prime choice.

Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony, 1992; studio stere, Decca [44:23]

Tim Perry was enthusiastic about this recording in his review back in 2007 on its release whereas Marc Bridle gave this a more qualified welcome in his review a year ago, summing it up as “the better of Blomstedt’s two studio recordings and a thrilling modern version, if not among the towering greats.”

That second verdict is typical of how I usually feel about Blomstedt; he has his fervent admirers and I certainly respect his abilities as a conductor but very often I bracket his output with so much of Haitink’s: wholly dependable, musical and professional but missing the spark which makes me sit up and beg. It’s beautifully played and recorded in superb sound, capturing the depth and warmth of an orchestra in top form and starts really well, with a sense of momentum, purpose and unity which is not always apparent in more routine recordings here. Sniffing apart, Raymond Kobler’s solo violin contribution is cool, elegant and refined – a paradigm, in fact for the performance as a whole; I would be more content if the dreamy "Des Helden Gefährtin" were followed by a more aggressive "Des Helden Walstatt", which has too comfortable a feeling about it, despite the weight of the San Francisco timpani and the resonance of the horns. The gentler sections here are ravishingly played but as with Previn’s equally well-played recording, some wildness is missing. I don’t want to overstress my reservation; this is still a grand account but not quite as stirring as my very favourites.

Lorin Maazel/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, 1996; studio digital, BMG/RCA Red Seal [46:06]

Considerably slower than his recording with the Cleveland two decades earlier, Maazel was seemingly in one of his wilful, self-conscious moods when this was recorded and as a result this is laboured and under-characterised. There is a lack of tension and this never takes off – sometimes it even sounds listless and slack. The critics are just plodding around, toothlessly carping, but Andreas Röhn is a fine, if restrained, aristocratic soloist through the languorous love scene, then the pitched battle is more of a tiff than a bloodbath.

I have no complaints at all about the depth and balance of the digital sound but that just throws into relief the listlessness of this performance. For all Maazel’s reputation in Strauss and the excellence of his orchestra here, to me he seems to be going through the motions and this one is a misfire.

Eiji Oue/Minnesota Orchestra, 1997; studio digital, Reference Recordings [45:58]

The standard critical practice with the series of recordings Oue made with the Minnesota Orchestra has been to laud to the skies the terrific digital sound - and it is wondrous – then lament the superficiality of Oue’s reading but I am most definitely not going down that route. While the orchestral sound is inevitably less plush than that of the BPO, that very clarity of line will be considered by some to be an advantage and in any case, there is no lack of weight here. You would hardly guess from the playing here that the Minnesota Orchestra is not one of the half-dozen front-rank outfits in the world. It is headed by Jorja Fleezanis, who plays the murderous violin solos with acerbic wit and silvery fleetness - and more tartness in her tone than, say, Schwalbé – which is in fact apt for her characterisation of the sharp-tongued Pauline.

Certainly Oue takes on Karajan at his own game, playing up the heroism for all it’s worth, perhaps to the cost of the humour and irony, but I hear no lack of bitter sarcasm in their portrayal of the critics’ carping and twittering. Oue’s control is mesmerising: he brings a chamber-like transparency to the score without becoming precious or self-conscious over details – the all-important line of the music is retained throughout and his use of rubato is highly effective, the love music really soars and the battle is ferociously overwhelming, with magnificent brass and timpani striving to outdo each other without losing co-ordination. Oue sustains shape and tension throughout the last movement which can sag if a conductor is not careful and the apotheosis is deeply fulfilling. That concentration is enhanced by Ms Fleezanis’ burnished playing – she audibly makes her tone much darker and richer here.

The sheer sumptuousness of the sound makes even established favourites like Reiner sound thin – hardly surprisingly, given that his recording dates from the very first years of stereo – and trumps virtually every other digital recording.

Donald Runnicles/NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg, 1998; studio digital, Teldec/Apex [43:22]

I almost invariably welcome a Donald Runnicles recording, especially on a bargain label with such an attractive pairing as Alessandra Marc in the final scene from Salome, but I don’t welcome Runnicles’ immediately audible vocal obbligato nor the rushed tempo or cursory, even perfunctory phrasing he adopts for the opening of this work. The NDR sounds more harried than energised as Runnicles keeps pressing on the beat. This is not especially fast overall, because he pulls back for the central sections but I get no sense on over-arching unity of purpose here; it is very episodic. I do not find Stefan Wagner as engaging a violin soloist as some and the Battle is at first anaemic - but eventually warms up a bit - and the horn presses ahead of the beat. The Teldec sound is not especially immediate. In short, this is a disappointment.

Giuseppe Sinopoli/Staatskapelle Dresden, 2001; live, digital Profil Hänssler [48.59]

What a loss Giuseppe Sinopoli was at only 54; but he left some superb recordings made during his nine-year tenancy as principal conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle – and this is another. Both the engineering and the sheer voluptuousness of the Dresden string sound here are stunning – unlike, for example, the live recording Kempe made with this orchestra (see above), there is absolutely no need for the listener to compromise standards. Surprisingly – and this is typical of Sinopoli’s conducting style – on paper the timing here is suggestive of leisureliness, yet the tension never flags, such is his grip of phrasing, dynamics and the interrelationship of sections. You have to be tolerant of a little bit of conductorial singalong and the occasional distant cough but they are not too distracting. Kai Vogler is a most eloquent violin soloist and although Sinopoli is indulgent on the lyrical passages, drawing out the swooning beauty of both the music and his orchestra’s sound, he does not linger unnecessarily over pauses and really delivers in the martial sections – the timps are great and the climaxes at 29:26 and 30:50 alone are worth the price of the discs. I love it.

This comes with the caveat that it is available only as part of a posthumous, 2 CD compilation of live Sinopoli recordings, as volume 35 of the Edition Staatskapelle Dresden on Profil – but if you find an affordable copy…

Christian Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 2002; studio digital, DG [47:06]

As you listen to this, you will register the superb sound and the beauty of the playing - but it is also full of interpretative eccentricities, whereby Thielemann suddenly tweaks the dynamics for no particular reason or suddenly applies the brakes mid-phrase which interrupts the momentum of the music disconcertingly. Several times he is simply too leisurely, which accounts for a duration on the long side. There is always a risk that "Des Helden Gefährtin" can drag and it definitely does so here, especially in its closing minutes and the battlefield passage is decidedly tame.

VPO Concertmaster Rainer Honeck is an absolutely superb soloist – one of the best. There is much to like about this performance – until the oddities and indulgences pull you up short.
Jean-Claude Casadesus/Orchestre national de Lille, 2003; live stereo, Naxos [47:34]

I am immediately irked by the very audible vocal contribution to the opening notes and dais-stomping by Casadesus – yet another conductor who is unable to refrain from thus blighting a recording throughout – but this is otherwise a good, if rather tame, account, rather similar to Thomas Søndergård’s recording (see the final review, below) in that it is in excellent sound – but it sounds as if it is live, as there is some audience noise and coughing, even though there is no indication of that in the notes - and does everything right but lacks the passion and urgency of the finest versions; the battle passes by without making a ripple and the horns are audibly labouring. I can see no reason to prefer it over a dozen other more vivid and animated accounts.

Sir Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 2005; live digital, EMI/Warner [47:24]

This is easily the worst performance in this whole survey, even worse than Ozawa’s nerveless effort, exhibiting all of Rattles worst tendencies: gluey, slack phrasing; stilted, self-conscious and mannered rallentandos; whole passages completely lacking in rhythmic tension. Nor are the technical aspects of the recording well managed: balances are faulty such that the woodwind are louder than the timpani and the general acoustic is mushy. Of course, there are some good things: fine work from the solo violin, Guy Braunstein and some heat in the Battle scene but for the most part this lacks focus and cohesion and comparisons with predecessors at the helm of the BPO in this work are not to Rattle’s advantage.

You may read in his review written on its release in 2006 that my esteemed colleague Jonathan Woolf has much the same opinion of this recording as do I.

Bernard Haitink/Chicago Symphony Orchestra 2008; live digital, CSO Resound [47:29]

I came to this recording straight from re-acquainting myself with Haitink’s earlier recording – one of my favourites - and refer you to John Quinn’s review, as it neatly analyses and presents my own response to it and I cannot improve upon his assessment. His statement that “Haitink directs an old man’s view of this young man’s music” sadly, says it all; it is slack and under-energised – “The Hero's Enemies” is strangely etiolated. I hasten to add that this is by no means the story of Haitink’s later recordings – his Brucker 7th, recorded only shortly before he retired, is a favourite of mine and absolutely masterful – but this recording made eleven years earlier, sounds tired. Even David Hurwitz gets it right when he describes this in his ‘Classics Today’ review, as “interminable, but…not in a good way.” I cannot agree with another reviewer’s opinion that it “is not substantially different from his 1970 performance with the Concertgebouw”. Even the recording, albeit, modern, recent digital, is less agreeable, there being some audience noise and a certain glassy sterility about it. Of course, there are still admirable qualities here - how could it be otherwise with a great orchestra and a conductor so distinguished? - but this is not in the running.

Andris Nelsons/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 2009; live composite digital, Orfeo [47:48]

Simon Thompson was very impressed by this recording asserting in his review that “this disc shows off both Andris Nelsons and the CBSO at their considerable best”, and dubbing Nelsons “one of the finest contemporary Straussians”. I share his enthusiasm for this recording: right from the off it is suffused with youthful thrust and vigour, the sound is spectacular and the CBSO play out of their skins – there is a confidence, unanimity and overarching sense of purpose and direction to this recording which does indeed stand out from the crowd here. Nelsons is daring in his protraction of pauses but jettisons caution in the frantic ensembles. Everything here is vividly characterised, from the spiky depiction of the critics, to recreation of Pauline’s complex persona – a special word of praise for concertmaster Laurence Jackson here - to the über-romantic representation of erotic passion, to the chivalric pride and bloody mayhem of the battlefield to the final, exalted apotheosis – it’s all here, with the kind of freshness and attack I miss in more measured accounts from equally well-played but less spontaneous-sounding accounts from some of the big German orchestras. Finally, a battle which demonstrates how Strauss beat Prokofiev to it when it comes to conveying the organised chaos of battle we hear in the best performances of Alexander Nevsky. Stupendous.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin/Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, 2010; studio digital, BIS [46:58]

This was reviewed disparagingly on MWI a decade ago, arousing the ire of the BIS CEO; you may read that review and response here. I happened to play this immediately after listening to a favourite Ormandy recording, which was not to its advantage: this is a sadly lacklustre affair, aesthetically and sonically about as invigorating as a cup of cocoa. The direction, playing and sonics are dull, dull, dull – so enervating that I had lost patience by the end of the first section. I am sorry if “knob-twiddling” engineers have spoiled our ears for flat, unadorned recording techniques, but we have to accept that the live experience never equates to listening via any electronic medium and different criteria apply. I keep this disc only for Dorothea Röschmann’s lovely Four Last Songs.

Mariss Jansons/Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, 2014; live digital, BR Klassik [46:15]

Three MusicWeb reviewers were in agreement regarding the merits of this recording (review; review; download). I see little point in belabouring points already made well and repeatedly and refer you to those verdicts – only I will just mention my little hobby horse about conductors singing along loudly and endorse this as a thoroughly satisfying account, in superb sound with virtually no indication of its being live – and I agree with John Quinn that for all its opulence it is lacking just a little in edge and excitement.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada/Frankfurt Radio Symphony, 2014; studio digital, Pentatone [45.17]

This was glowingly reviewed by Marc Bridle as a “Recording of the Month” in November 2016: “A stunning Ein Heldenleben… in state-of-the-art sound…one of the best Strauss discs I have heard in years” and as with the previous recording I refer you to his review rather than reiterate his points, (but I have not heard the two recordings by Japanese conductors he cites as reference versions, which are rather expensive and recherché regarding availability). As with Jansons’ recording, I find that, good as it is, there is a slight lack of the wild abandon I seek in the greatest accounts.

Daniel Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin, 2014; live digital, DG [46:22]

I admit to being prejudiced against this recording because it is coupled with the most dismal recording of the Four Last Songs in existence. On its issue, it was guardedly reviewed by Simon Thompson who made a number of apposite qualifications regarding its virtues – with which I agree (Brian Wilson was much more enthusiastic but I am afraid I do not share his delight). I find Barenboim to be quite often listless, ponderous and mannered in his delivery and see no validity in his slurring of phrases which should be crisp and direct. Furthermore, his unreasonably obtrusive and frequent vocal obbligato is a real turn-off - when will conductors top indulging in that selfish and il-disciplined habit? The Staatskapelle’s playing is fine but the problem is that they are doing what Barenboim wants.

It is ironic that in the same year as this monstrosity was recorded, two of the finest accounts of Ein Heldenleben also appeared (those reviewed above immediately before this). This is approaching Rattle territory.

Paavo Järvi/NHK Symphony Orchestra, 2015; live digital, RCA Red Seal [44:13]

More than a generation after his father’s excellent recording, Paavo Järvi made this one with the NHK SO, the excellent Tokyo orchestra and Simon Thompson made this a Recording of the Month in April 2017, whereas Marc Bridle was slightly less convinced, as per his review of the previous month, but he still recognises its manifold virtues.

I am inclined to agree that this is among the most vivacious and invigorating performances I have heard. There is a brilliance about both the orchestral playing and the recorded sound here, but underpinned by superb, rich bass in both the engineering and from the lower instruments themselves – the engineers ensure we can hear the two harps even in the noisiest passages. Järvi’s driven tempi militate against any undue leisureliness and I do not share MB’s concern that there is too much emotional detachment or restraint in Järvi’s delivery of the love music but it is true that they do not evince the kind of sumptuousness we hear from the BPO or the VPO. The solo violin is excellent but just occasionally a little tart and it’s a pity that his final sustained D sharp is poorly bowed and scratchy. The last section, however, caps a superb account, ranging over all the moods effortlessly with seamless ease and flexibility.

In short, I find myself agreeing with both of my colleagues: this is a bright and brilliant account which does not delve into depths like some more “Germanic” versions but convinces on its own terms.
Yutaka Sado/Tonkünstler Orchestra, 2015; studio digital, Tonkünstler [47:02]

I have really enjoyed Sado’s Bruckner recordings with the Tonkünstler Orchestra, and coming to this fresh from Rattle’s glutinous live BPO recording, as by chance I did, was an eye and ear-opener, as this is neat, clear, clean and well sprung by comparison, although I would not say it is the most exciting performance. The live sound is first class, with exceptional depth and clarity. The same sheen on the strings I hear in their Bruckner is as advantageous in densely orchestrated Strauss and Dutch violinist Lieke Te Winkel plays wonderfully, with real heart and feeling. Sado has a firm grip over the structure but is at times just a little too lovingly leisurely for me and tension sags a little in the slower sections – a potential weakness signalled by the long duration of 47 minutes - but the battle music is aptly driven. This is “merely” a very fine, highly enjoyable account and but does not stir me in the way the finest can.
Kent Nagano/Götesborgs Symfoniker, 2016; studio digital, Farao Classics [44:43]
I reviewed this in 2018 and reproduce here an edited version of my findings:

“This new recording from Sweden…runs into stiff competition. This is a fine performance these are fine performances, but I could not in all conscience rank it as the equal of the very best. A good deal here is decidedly better executed than in the Weigle recording (of Tod und Verklärung and Aus Italien); there is greater precision, cleaner articulation, more dynamic variety, more generous phrasing and even a clearer, fuller sound picture, too. This work needs some swagger and Nagano provides it; the concluding apotheosis in track 15 builds gloriously with an appropriately audible tam-tam but the brass chorale outburst half way through is too restrained.”

This is not a front-runner, then.

Sir Antonio Pappano/Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia 2018; live digital, Warner [47:15]

It is perhaps slightly surprising to find an Italian orchestra playing this piece but of course there is no reason why they should not, especially with Pappano, a conductor of Italian heritage, like Barbirolli.
However, I agree with previous reviewer Simon Thompson that this orchestra misses some of the depth and darkness of the work; it is indeed too shot through with Mediterranean sunlight, sounding more like Strauss’ Aus Italien - the critics are a toothless lot and we canter round the battlefield joyously and more noisily than menacingly – but the horns excel themselves and I still like it as playing and as a refreshing interpretation. Pappano takes his time at over 47 minutes and the “wifely” section is too drawn out, with solo violinist Roberto González-Monjas extracting every ounce of sentiment to the point of mawkishness but the concluding section is both inward and sonorously radiant.

This was a live performance but balances are excellent – how prominent those harps are, though! - and there is virtually no audience noise - although the microphone is so close to the soloist that his breathing is apparent.

Strauss played like Verdi - why not? (Well; lots of reasons, I expect, but anyway…)

Thomas Søndergård/Royal Scottish National Orchestra, 2018; studio digital, Linn [47:48]

This is a cool, objective, well-played, beautifully balanced account which engages me not a jot and leaves me neither shaken nor stirred. As far as passion and engagement are concerned, it might as well be a rehearsal or a sound test. That sound is superb, leader Maya Iwabuchi plays flawlessly, but there is no urgency about the direction and I am left unmoved. The Battle proceeds decorously with every note in place and the orchestra makes a nice noise – but the climax at 7:19 is so limp. I appreciate that a reviewer’s mood is a huge factor in what is always a subjective response and maybe I had, by the time I came to this recording, listened to too many recordings but I expect to be drawn in by this marvellous music and even surprised, as I was by the previously unencountered Nelsons recording for which I had no great expectations. All those previous versions gave me a context in which to judge performers’ involvement – and this falls short. Neeme Järvi achieved a great deal more with this orchestra (before it became “Royal”) thirty years previously. Maybe I’m wrong, but I am with Byron that “perfection is insipid in this naughty world of ours” - so sample it on YouTube and tell me so.

Sometimes in these surveys, a recording – to borrow an American phrase - seems to come out of left field, and in this case, despite my deep attachment to Karajan and Ormandy, my top nominees for both sound and interpretation are an unlikely pair but I stand by that choice. Having said that, my nominations could be considered almost arbitrary as there are a dozen great recordings above and very few lemons: in addition to my top choices below, Ormandy, Kempe 1973, Reiner, Haitink 1970, Ashkenazy, Jansons, Orozco-Estrada and Järvi père et fils are all superb, too, but just a handful – including the two outliers in Oue and Nelsons – have for me a special quality – a “goosebump factor” which sets them above and apart from even those highly distinguished versions.
Toscanini 1941
Karajan 1985
Sinopoli 2001
Nelsons 2009*
Solti 1977-78
Karajan 1985
Oue 1997*
First choices*
Ralph Moore

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