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.


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

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa