Strauss, R.: Ein Heldenleben (SACD review)

Also, Burleske. Denis Kozhukhin, piano; Marc Albrecht, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 617.

I've said this before many times 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 Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's The Sea Hawk. Or from The 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.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), German composer and conductor, wrote Ein Heldenleben in 1899 as a mock autobiography, a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait. The composer was only thirty-four years old when he wrote it, proving his self-confidence in writing a musical autobiography at so early an age. Mostly, however, he seems to have composed it to defend himself against his critics, whom he silences through the music. In response, many of Strauss's critics continued their attacks on Strauss, saying his music was indulgent and narcissistic.

Whatever, Strauss divided Ein Heldenleben into several parts describing the various stages in the artist's life. The first segment, "The Hero," describes Strauss himself and does so on a big, swashbuckling scale. Maestro Marc Albrecht handles it in fine if slightly perfunctory style. In other words, I would have liked more swash in that buckle. If we see the opening movement as setting the tone for the composer lampooning himself and his critics, it could have benefited from more juice doing it.

Next, the music turns to "The Hero's Adversaries," obviously his critics, where we hear them squabbling among themselves in amusing fashion. Following that is "The Hero's Companion," his wife, defined by the violin. Under Albrecht the adversaries seem somewhat complacent, but the wife seems appropriately temperamental. Throughout these sections, the Netherlands Philharmonic and, I assume, first violinist Vadim Tsibulvsky as the wife, perform admirably, with a polished decorum.

Marc Albrecht
"The Hero's Battlefield" is where Strauss engages in all-out combat with his critics, reminding them of his (musical) accomplishments by throwing in bits from Don Juan and Zarathustra, as well as a few horns from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. Albrecht seems to be having a good time here, never rushing things and never overemphasizing the obvious. Yet the conducting also appears rather cautious, as though Albrecht didn't want to stick his neck out too far. I wish he had done so because we already have a plethora of conventional Heldenlebens; something a touch more vibrant might have been more interesting.

Albrecht wraps up the piece with the greater certainty that peace and love will prevail in the hero's life. It is here that the conductor's slightly conservative approach pays off best because the music needs such a light and tender touch as he provides.

Coupled with Ein Heldenleben (and preceding it on the program as a kind of warm-up act) is the Burleske in D minor, which Strauss wrote for piano and orchestra in 1885-86 when he was still young, about twenty-one. The work had a rocky beginning. He wrote it for the pianist and conductor Hans van Bulow, who proclaimed it a "complicated piece of nonsense" and refused to play it. The piece, slightly revised, wouldn't see a première until 1890 or a publication until 1894. Even revised, it still seems like a complicated work, full of satire, whimsy, playfulness, and youthful mischief and still a handful for the soloist, especially, to negotiate. Nevertheless, pianist Denis Kozhurkhin does a first-rate job with it, and the whole affair comes off with a splendid flair.

Producers Renaud Loranger and Wolfram Nehis and engineers Erdo Groot and Jean-Marie Geijsen recorded the music in hybrid SACD at the NedPhO-Koepel, Amsterdam in February (Burleske) and December 2017. You can play the disc in multichannel or two-channel SACD from an SACD player or in two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened in the two-channel SACD mode.

It's a good, modern recording, smooth, warm, and wide ranging. Although it probably doesn't have enough completely outstanding qualities to qualify as a stereophile recording, it makes for good, relaxed listening and satisfactorily approaches the sound of a real orchestra in a real acoustic setting. A modest reverberation defines the hall, while stereo depth and spread remain more than acceptable. I would have expected a tad more dynamic range and impact from an SACD recording, yet such minor shortcomings fail to detract much from the disc's overall sense of realism.


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

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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