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Ein Heldenleben / Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Import
All of Strauss' symphonic poems tell a story, but in Ein Heldenleben the subject is his own life. Casting himself as the Hero, the hostile music critics as Adversaries, his compositions as Works of Peace, his Flight from the World as Consummation, the 34-year-old composer seems to succumb to unabashed egotism and grandiosity. However, his self-indulgence is redeemed by his music, which abounds with soaring, rapturous melodies, breath-taking modulations and gorgeous, scintillating orchestral colors. A solo violin represents the Hero's Companion, Strauss' beloved but famously difficult wife; their love scene contains some of his most ravishing, ecstatic music. Equally striking is his mordantly satirical depiction of the cacophonously bickering Adversaries, who rear their malicious heads even during moments of triumphant fulfillment. Toward the end, Strauss slyly tempts listeners to "Name that tune!" with almost 30 quotes from his own works. The orchestra is wonderful; Guy Braunstein plays his virtuosic solo brilliantly but sounds distant. He comes through better in the prominent, fiendishly difficult violin part of the Suite Strauss assembled from his incidental music to Moliére's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Scored for 37 instruments, it depicts the comedy's characters and situations in delightfully witty "modernized" baroque dances, some using themes from Lully; the Finale is a Viennese waltz. The players revel in Strauss' mischievous humor and their own virtuosity. --Edith Eisler
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EMI has given Rattle superbly detailed sonics across a huge dynamic range; there is no comparison with the boomy bass and shrill violins found in Karajan's classic 1959 account on DG. (It must be admitted, however, that Christian Thielemann's version for DG has even better sound -- it makes this one feel a bit hollow and lacking in sensual splendor.) The multi-miking may offend purists, since no inner detail is left out--if you still want to hear th second flute while the brass is blasting away, here you go. I for one find the impact of this CD almost unbearable. The flood of sound comes close to the shivering excitment of the real thing (Rattle recently overhwlmed the New YOrk critics and public with this same Heldeleben performance in Carnegie Hall, which I attended).
My chief objection to Rattle's conducting has been its fussiness, and in the long, enraptured section devoted to the hero's beloved, Rattle dawdles self-consciously over every sugary bar. But elsewhere he uncovers so much new detail that I was won over; this is a Heldenleben that underlines every expressive stroke from Strauss rather than being embarrassed by excess. The generous filler is a graceful, sensitively small-scale reading of the Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite that Strauss concocted to resuce a pastiche of 18th-century music from the original, unworkable version of Ariadne auf Naxos. Both readings are from 2005, the Heldenleben recorded at a live concert, the Bourgeois Gentilhomme in the studio.
Without a doubt this CD sets a new standard in performance for one of Strauss's most extravangant tone poems. It's hard to imagine another orhestra that could duplicate it (if you have doubts, there's a new live Heldenleben from the Royal Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons to put beside this one).
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, requiring a much smaller orchestra, doesn't seem to be afflicted by the same dubious balances. It's a work I have never particularly enjoyed, but it held my interest on Rattle's recording more than it has ever done before. For me, it's the highlight of the disc.
I feel no different.
To my mind, this performance is a Requiem for this once great ensemble. Its unique Klang was destroyed by Abbado the Boring and his `democratisation' agenda - we wish him well as he hobbles around in Period Practice Land. And with Sir Simon securely bunkered down as head conductor, Berlin is not gonna be Resurrection City anytime soon. The inner luminescence of a great orchestra has gone. Its players are the Berlin Philharmonic in name alone. Throughout this disc, for instance, their playing is tensionless - absolutely tensionless. One might as well be listening to the current day Philadelphia Orchestra - first rate, yes; inexplicable, no.
By stepping up to the Ein Heldenleben plate, Sir Simon invited a comparison with you-know-who. We will use Herbie's 1975 performance on EMI Strauss: Don Quixote; Ein Heldenleben; Symphonia Domestica. It is not to their benefit.
Where is the swagger in the opening bars of Sir Simon's account?
Why are the critics so tame in his hands?
Why is the battle passage so pacific?
Has there ever been a less hair-raising rendition of the theme from Don Juan? What a non-event. I am staggered that no-one has mentioned it yet. This is the nadir
And what about the innumerable `saggy waggy elephant' passages where Sir Simon is unable to maintain any sort of momentum coming off a tutti? I counted at least half a dozen occasions, mainly on track 4 - Des Helden Walstatt - from 3: 51 onwards. The opening of Des Helden Friedenswerke is pretty limp as well.
Where is the sense of valediction in the last movement - which is not to be equated with `slowing down and playing softer'? An apotheosis there ain't.
Karajan in 1975 offers a sharp contrast on every one of these points. His vices (such as the `saturated fat' sound of his orchestra) are more interesting than Sir Simon's virtues (clarity, to no vivid end). His version is a Hero writ large.
There is another work on this disc but I had lost heart by that point. Others have commented on it.
I do not understand how anyone who purports to love this work - and is aware of the wider discography - could award the Beknighted One anything more than three stars.
Of the virtues that make one small - if not middling.