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