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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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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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa