Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Webern: Im Sommerwind. Bernard Haitink, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. CSO Resound CSOR 901 1002.

There was a time in the late Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties that I looked forward to any new recording by conductor Bernard Haitink and his magnificent Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. You almost couldn't go wrong with his performances because the man always took a sensible approach to the music, and the engineers always captured a rich, resonant sound. After his leaving the Concertgebouw, I sort of lost track of him until now. He was the Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2006 until 2010, and this live recording with the CSO during that time period demonstrates that he hasn't lost his touch.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), the great composer of tone paintings (Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, An Alpine Symphony), wrote Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) as a semi-serious musical self-portrait in 1898 when he was only thirty-four years old. The piece is a kind of tongue-in-cheek autobiography in musical form, which showed the composer's supreme self-confidence, writing it as he did at such an early age. Mostly, he wrote it, though, to get in a few digs at his critics, who, in the music at least, he silences convincingly.

As always in his interpretations, Haitink takes a rational, measured view of the work, yet he misses none of the big, triumphant moments, sublime serenity, or impish humor. In fact, the conductor's reading here is not substantially different from his 1970 performance with the Concertgebouw, available in a two-disc, mid-price set from Philips.

Strauss wrote Ein Heldenleben in seven parts describing seven stages in the artist's life. The first segment, "The Hero," obviously describes himself and does so in large-scale, swashbuckling style, which Haitink takes apparent delight in presenting. Next, the music turns to "The Hero's Adversaries," his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion, followed by "The Hero's Companion," his wife, who expresses herself sweetly in the strings, first wittily and then endearingly in the ensuing "Love Scene."

"The Hero's Battlefield" is the centerpiece of the work, where Strauss engages in all-out war with his critics, reminding them musically of his accomplishments with bits from Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven's Third Symphony "Eroica." Under Haitink, the movement is never hectic but quite thrilling despite its hustle and bustle.

"The Hero's Works of Peace" is another slow movement, again a remembrance of the composer's previous tone poems as an almost-final rebuke of his foes. The work closes with "The Hero's Retirement from the World and Fulfillment," the longest movement, an attractive concluding note of contentment and repose for a life and art well spent, from which Haitink wrings the last ounce of grace and charm, without any hint of sentimentality or histrionics.

With Haitink, Strauss's music rings out most eloquently. However, there is so much going on in Heldenleben, so many transitions and contrasts, that's hard for any conductor to help the fragments jell or coalesce into a smooth, flowing, meaningful whole. If Haitink doesn't always hold it together, either, we can hardly fault the conductor.

As a companion piece on the disc, Haitink chose Im Sommerwind (In the Summer Wind) by Anton Webern (1883-1945), another tone poem, this one an ode to Nature written when Webern was about twenty years old.  However, Webern never published it, nor did he ever hear it played in his lifetime. He seems to have regarded the work as an early example of his foolish youth, and it would not be until 1962 that anybody would play it. Webern apparently thought he had matured beyond mere musical pictures into more-ambitious, more-modern compositions so kept Sommerwind under wraps during his lifetime. It's a shame, really, because the music is lovely in every way, and Haitink caresses each and every note.

The CSOR audio engineers recorded the music live in Orchestra Hall, Chicago, in 2008-2009, using fairly close-up miking, especially in Ein Heldenleben.  While this avoids most audience noise, it doesn't always impart much sense of concert-hall ambience to the proceedings (as Haitink's old Concertgebouw recordings for Philips did). Still, the sound shows up detailed and clean, with good dynamics, air, impact, and transparency. Of minor note, there isn't a lot of orchestral depth, the upper midrange is a trifle rough and bright, the treble can sometimes sizzle, there's a slight glassiness to the overall sound, and the bass is somewhat lacking.

Nevertheless, the sonic shortcomings are hardly objectionable, and the important thing is that Haitink persuades us that this particular music of Richard Strauss and Anton Webern is highly listenable, even if it is mere tone painting.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa