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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa