Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Tod und Verklarung. Francois-Xavier Roth, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden un Freiburg. Hanssler Classic CD 93.299.

Is it really such tall leap from the heroic swagger of Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes to the heroic swagger of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben? From Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben to Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Sea Hawk? Or from Korngold’s Sea Hawk to John Williams’s Star Wars? I think not. All composers owe a little something to those who went before them, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”) was a natural step in the progression of the tone poem, here given a rousing rendition by Maestro Francois-Xavier Roth and his Southwest German Radio Orchestra. What’s more, the orchestra plays with the precision and solidity you would expect of a thoroughly polished German ensemble, helping Roth immensely to recreate Strauss’s picturesque musical poem.

A note before we continue, though, about the ensemble involved, courtesy of Wikipedia: “The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra (also known in English as the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra or SWR Symphony Orchestra, and in German as the Sinfonieorchester des S├╝dwestrundfunks or SWR Sinfonieorchester) is a radio orchestra located in the German cities of Baden-Baden and Freiburg.” Francois-Xavier Roth has been the orchestra’s Chief Conductor since 2011. Now that we’ve cleared that up, on to the music.

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ein Heldenleben in 1899 as a kind of tongue-in-cheek autobiography, a semi-serious self-portrait. Strauss was only thirty-four years old at the time, showing his supreme self-confidence by writing a musical autobiography as he did at such an early age. Mainly, though, he seems to have written it to get in a few digs at his critics, whom he convincingly silences through the music.

Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into seven parts describing seven stages in the artist’s life. The first segment, “The Hero,” obviously describes Strauss himself and does so on a large, swashbuckling scale. Here, Maestro Roth is appropriately dashing, with plenty of panache. Next, the music turns to “The Hero’s Adversaries,” his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion; Roth captures their trivialities, yet their possibly sinister nature as well. Following that is “The Hero’s Companion,” his wife, whom violinist Christian Ostertag sweetly defines in solo; then in the ensuing “Love Scene” we find from Roth not only a loving, harmonious wife but an apparently complex one.

“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 Eroica Symphony. Roth provides it with an adequate urgency and excitement without too much hectic, bombastic action.

“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. After that, the work closes with “The Hero’s Retirement from the World and His Fulfillment,” the longest movement, a concluding note of possible contentment and repose for a life of art well spent. However, Roth ends the piece more ominously than most conductors, so there’s still a question about the hero’s actual resolution of his problems.

Tod und Verklarung (“Death and Transfiguration”), which Strauss wrote in 1889, a full ten years before Ein Heldenleben, is much more serious in tone than the more playful later work, yet it pursues a similar theme. It describes the death of an artist, who, as he lies dying, thinks of life, the innocence of childhood, the struggles of manhood, and the achievement of goals. Finally, the artist receives a desired transfiguration "from the infinite reaches of heaven.” It is, perhaps, the kind of reflection on death that only a very young (or a very old) man could write.

Roth takes his time to develop the various motifs in Tod und Verklarung, keeping everything as somber as I’ve heard, yet without being too maudlin about it. In fact, in some sections Roth will positively startle you from your seat. Of course, the excellent recording helps here, too.

As this is apparently the first volume of Maestro Roth’s Strauss tone poems, he’s off to an auspicious start.

Hanssler Classic recorded the music at the Konzerthaus, Freiburg, Germany, in November 2012, and they did a really good of it. The acoustic sounds very spacious, with a realistic hall ambience. There is a good tonal balance, with perhaps a hint of mid-treble brightness and a slight veiling but in general more than enough detailing. A nicely controlled low end helps, too, given the resonance of the venue. The dynamic impact is moderate, the stereo spread wide, and the depth of image impressive. It’s a fine, lifelike presentation.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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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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