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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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