Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Varese: Ameriques. Wei Lu, violin; Ingo Metzmacher, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Challenge Classics CC72644.

I've said this before but it bears repeating: I don't think it's such big leap from the heroic swagger of Franz Liszt's Les Preludes to the heroic swagger of Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. Or 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. All composers owe 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 executed with an exceptionally clearheaded precision by Maestro Igo Metmacher and the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin.

American occupation forces, by the way, founded the German orchestra in 1946, just after the Second World War, and it has known any number of notable principal conductors in its time, including Ferenc Fricsay (1948-1963), Lorin Maazel (1964-1975), Riccardo Chailly (1982-1989), Vladimir Ashkenazy (1989-1999), Kent Nagano (2000-2006), Ingo Metzmacher (2007-2010), and currently Tugan Sokhiev (2012-present). So, yes, it's a fine, world-class ensemble.

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 when he wrote it, showing his supreme self-confidence by composing 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. Many critics in response took their digs at Strauss, suggesting he was merely being indulgent and narcissistic.

Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into several parts describing the 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 Metzmacher zips through the heroics in short order, perhaps to de-emphasize the mocking implications of the composer engaging in serious heroic deeds. Certainly, Metzmacher has an ear for the lines and arguments of the score, his phrasing and dynamic contrasts bringing out the work's rhythmic appeal at the expense of a little of its more Romantic qualities.

Next, the music turns to "The Hero's Adversaries," his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion; Metzmacher captures their pettinesses pretty clearly. Following that is "The Hero's Companion," his wife, whom violinist Wei Lu sweetly defines in solo. In fact, Lu's violin as the wife is quite charming, a highlight of the disc.

"The Hero's Battlefield" is where Strauss engages in all-out war with his critics, reminding them (musically) of his accomplishments by throwing in bits from Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. In these warring sections and in the conclusion, Metzmacher again de-emphasizes the purely battle music while trying to impress upon listeners the overall sonic picture. Strauss was, after all, creating sound pictures, and sometimes he intended the sound to reflect merely an impression rather than a specific incident. Not that Metzmacher doesn't inject a good deal of liveliness and energy into the music, though, and, indeed, his manner with it is quite exhilarating.

Ingo Metzmacher
The disc's coupling is perhaps a surprising one: Ameriques by the French-born composer and conductor Edgard Varese (1883-1965). The idea of the pairing is that Richard Strauss was really ahead of his time, and Varese's work, written between 1918 and 1921 and premiered in 1926, fits in a similar modernistic mold. Like the Strauss piece, Varese wrote his work for a very large orchestra, organizing it into blocks of self-contained music and, like most of his work, with a greater emphasis on texture, tone colors, and rhythm than on any formal melodies. He called the piece Ameriques ("Americas") presumably because it was the first thing he wrote after moving to the U.S. in 1915.

Varese termed his music "organized sound," and it helped usher in the modern musical age. Maestro Metzmacher does his best to play up the similarities in the Strauss and Varese music, and to some extent succeeds. However, be aware that by comparison to Varese, Strauss's music still sounds the more Romantically old-fashioned, no matter how much Metzmacher tries to clarify and reinforce the modern elements.

Anyway, in Ameriques Varese attempted to capture the often cacophonous sounds of New York City, and Metzmacher helps make these sounds more comprehensible through his careful handling and execution of the ideas. There's a strong sense of transparency in the music as Metzmacher shapes it, with the noises of traffic, sirens, steamboat whistles, and crowds coming across in shimmering, sometimes electrifying, immediacy. Like Strauss, Varese was creating tone pictures, and if anything they are even more localized and startling. Metzmacher ensures that we hear it that way and offers up a colorful and scintillating interpretation in every way.

Incidentally, Metzmacher plays both works on the program in their original versions, and a booklet note explains the differences between the originals and later versions.

Producer and editor Florian B. Schmidt and engineers Martin Eichberg and Boris Manych recorded the music at the Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany in September 2007. Although there is no mention on the packaging or in the accompanying booklet about their recording it live, it appears to be so, given the occasional audience noise present. Also, I have no idea why Challenge Classics waited so long to release the disc in 2014, but I'm glad they finally did.

The engineers miked the music fairly close up, probably to minimize audience noise, and in this regard they did a good job. Only in the quietest parts of the music can one hear any coughs or rustling of feet, and there is no applause involved to spoil our enjoyment of the presentation. In any case, live or not, the close-up sound provides plenty of definition and impact but doesn't always offer much in the way of depth or dimensionality. Fortunately, the space and air around the instruments appear realistic enough, and a small degree of room resonance flatters the general sonic impression.

JJP

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


No comments:

Post a Comment

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.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa