R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (CD review)

Also, Magnard: Chant funebre. Jean-Claude Casadesus, Orchestre National de Lille/Region Nord-Pas de Calais. Naxos 8.573563.

I've always thought of Richard Strauss's tone poems as a natural progression of the genre dating from Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Liszt through Waxman, Korngold, and Williams. Here, we have Strauss's extended tone poem Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") performed by Jean-Claude Casadesus and the ensemble he founded in 1976, the Orchestra National de Lille.

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 how supremely self-confident he must have been by composing a musical autobiography at such an early age. However, he mainly seems to have written it to get in a few digs at his critics, whom he convincingly silences through the music. In response, many critics took their shots at Strauss, suggesting he was merely being indulgent and narcissistic. Whatever, the music has survived in the popular classical repertoire and remains popular to this day.

Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into a number of parts describing stages in the artist's life. The first segment, "The Hero," obviously describes Strauss himself and does so on a large, swashbuckling scale. Here, I expected to find more swagger than I found under Maestro Casadesus's direction. Maybe the conductor wanted us to think the hero of the music a more thoughtful, perhaps more pompous individual than we usually encounter. I don't know.

After that, the music turns to "The Hero's Adversaries," his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion. Under Casadesus, the enemies seem well described and their pettiness nicely rendered.

Then there's "The Hero's Companion," his wife, featuring concertmaster Fernand Iaciu. The wife appears nicely drawn, patient and understanding, with a lovely tone from Iaciu's violin.

Jean-Claude Casadesus
"The Theme of Confidence in Victory," "The Hero's Field of Battle," and "Martial Fanfares" are where Strauss engages in all-out war with his critics, reminding them (musically) of his accomplishments by throwing in bits from past hits like Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Although Casadesus might have drawn up the battle scenes a bit more dramatically, they come over well enough in any case.

Following these warring sections we find "The Hero's Works of Peace," The Hero's Withdrawal from the World and Fulfilment," and, finally, "Resignation." With Casadesus they sound appropriately animated by the love and understanding of the hero's wife. It almost seems as though the conductor became more involved in the spirit in the performance as it went along.

While the orchestra plays with a professional competency, it never seems big enough or opulent enough for the scale of Strauss's vision. Perhaps, though, my living for so long with recordings by the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Staatskapelle Dresden will do that to a listener.

Would I include Casadesus's performance among the best ever committed to record? Well, I haven't heard all of them to make such a commitment, but, no, among the recordings I have heard, I wouldn't say this one is entirely competitive. The listener can find more vivid, more robust, more thrilling, more exciting, and more poetic versions from the likes of Rudolf Kempe and the Dresden State Orchestra (EMI), Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA), Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony (EMI), Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic (EMI), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), and Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca). With such a wealth of great performances already available, I can no more than recommend the Casadesus disc to those inquisitive souls who are simply curious about it or to collectors who must have every version of the work available.

Radio-Classique produced the Strauss work and Aurelie Messonnier engineered it; and Orchestre National de Lille produced the accompanying Magnard piece and Anne Chausson engineered it. They made both recordings at Nouveau Siecle, Lille, France, the Strauss in January 2011 and the Magnard in November 2014.

There is no indication on the packaging or in the notes about this being a live recording, so I assume the occasional noises we hear come from the conductor and orchestra members themselves. Otherwise, the sound is fine, with a good sense of depth and dimensionality, fairly good detailing and dynamics, and only a slight edge to the upper midrange. Still, the number of odd noises throughout the performance is a little distracting.


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.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa