Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen - Luisi
Sony Classical 88697084712
Classical - Orchestral
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen
Kai Vogler (violin)
Fabio Luisi (conductor)
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Review by Graham Williams - June 2, 2007
In one important respect this is a unique recording of Ein Heldenleben. It is the first on SACD to use what is described as the ‘Version with original ending’. The booklet notes claim that this quiet ending, only available in one of Strauss’s handwritten versions, is what he probably would have preferred to the familiar more grandiose version we always hear. The notes provide no information as to the provenance of this version and I have been unable to locate any reference to it elsewhere, although Wolfgang Sawallisch adopted it on his 1995 EMI recording (RBCD only). Be that as it may, it is very effective and brings to an end one of the most interesting and beautifully played performances of this work that I have ever heard.
The opening statement of ‘Der Held’ immediately establishes the quality of the Dresden Staatskapelle horns and strings, captured in the spacious acoustic of the Lukaskirche, Dresden while Luisi builds this section to a truly overwhelming climax. At times he uses a little more rubato than Kempe in his recording with the same orchestra and it is most effective in helping to establish Luisi’s own distinct interpretation of the piece.
Kai Vogler, the concertmaster, plays his long solos in ‘Des Helden Gefärhtin’ with both ravishing tone and wit. Here again one can luxuriate in the luscious orchestral sound Luisi obtains throughout this section without ever allowing the textures to thicken.
The off-stage trumpets that call the Hero to battle are particularly thrilling in multi-channel, as they are heard from both the front and rear speakers, and the whole of the battle music that follows is played with a wonderful sweep and swagger while the splendidly balanced recording ensures that this dense and heavily orchestrated music never coalesces into just a block of undifferentiated sound. The same is true of the following section ‘Des Helden Friedenswerke’ where Strauss weaves some thirty quotations from earlier works into a seamless symphonic texture.
The long final section of the piece is unfolded with a tenderness and moving simplicity that leads naturally to the ‘new’ quiet ending. Here the violin of Kai Vogler and the orchestra’s superb first horn magically intertwine as the music gradually sinks into silence. Repeated playing of this SACD has certainly convinced me of its validity.
‘Metamorphosen - Study for 23 Solo Strings’, Strauss’s threnody on the destruction of German culture at the end of the Second World War, has a particular poignancy for Dresdeners and the performance here is as fine as any on disc. The generous acoustic and glowing richness of the playing creates the impression of possibly more than 23 players, but Luisi’s passionate performance and care for balances ensures that this harrowing piece makes a deep impression on the listener.
Strangely, Sony/BMG seem rather coy in promoting this disc as a hybrid SACD. It is supplied in a standard CD jewel box and only in tiny letters on the left hand of the box can one read “Hybrid Channel Super Audio CD”. Nowhere does it state that there are, in fact, 5.0 channels. The lavish booklet features four posed photographs of Fabio Luisi in the Semperoper but only two of the composer – a reflection of today’s ‘personality marketing’.
As I have indicated above, the recording quality on this SACD is excellent and the centre channel problem that affected some of the early pressings has now (September 2007) been rectified by Sony/BMG. I now have no hesitation in awarding the ratings above.
Those listening in 2-channel stereo need not hesitate.
Copyright © 2007 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net
Review by John Miller - September 7, 2007
Endorsing the excellent review by Castor, I can confirm that recent pressings have now corrected the initial centre channel editing error in the MC mix. The sonics of this new disc are very different to that of Luisi's Don Quixote. This disappointed me with its multi-miked all-in-your-lap approach, with very little evidence of the recording venue being allowed and poor front to back perspective. Here, the famous Lukaskirche acoustic is present in full measure, and the sound-field is very wide and very deep, so that climaxes can blossom and there is plenty of bloom on instrumental solos. Percussion, however, is at the back of the orchestra; the timpani are somewhat reticent and the bass drum is decidedly underpowered. Nevertheless, the recording has a thrilling realism, capturing the full dynamic of Heldenleben, where the horn section could be said to be the heroes; they whoop and blaze, signal and sigh as if possessed. Strauss wrote wonderful parts for horns all his life; his father was an orchestral horn player of some note. In part 5 of Heldenleben, 'The Hero's Works of Peace', you can hear how beautiful the previous Don Quixote disc could have been, when Strauss temptingly recalls some of its music.
There are some non-musical noises in both works, faithfully recorded, from Luisi as he bounds on his platform encouraging the troops. These are not particularly distracting, and in fact for me they added to the disc's realistic portrayal of living musicians working at full pitch.
Luisi takes the Hero's Life in a broad tempo which allows it to unfold naturally and gives it space to breath and expand gloriously. Even before the portrayal of his wife, however, the baleful effect of the critics attempt to drag him down. The voice of implacable Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick's ever-present sardonic 4-note tuba leitmotif pops up frequently here, and intrudes into most of the other sections as well. Strauss also portrayed other critics in specific motifs, as noted in Norman del Mar's monumental biography.
When it does come, 'The Hero's Companion' is a welcome breathing space. Pauline, his controlling wife and soprano singer is portrayed in love music of the deepest contentment, with tender violin solos and wonderful soft playing from the whole orchestra.
'The Hero's Battlefield' is enjoined without the prominent and brutal percussion-led pounding affected by some conductors, and the carping, vituperative, wounding and destructive comments of Strauss' critics are effectively tossed back and forth across the wide Lukaskirche stage by the woodwind and brass with devastating effect. The battlefield is eventually disengaged (this is one battle which could not be won!) and Strauss brings on a nostalgic retrospective of his previous works, not just the well-known quotes from the tone poems, but also clecerly entangling quotes from many lesser known works, which del Mar also details. After all, Heldenleben was Strauss' last tone poem, and he was entitled to see his efforts in perspective as Works of Peace. The orchestra rise to the occasion magnificently, with a remarkable ripeness of playing and great affection. Thos whooping horns from Don Juan raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
Luisi's decision to replace the published falsely rhetorical triumphalism at the end of the final section, 'The Hero's Retirement from the World and the Fullfillment of his Life', although not entirely original as Castor remarked in his review, seems entirely justified. Strauss was pushed towards a louder ending by his friends, but was never happy with it. Here, it fits seamlessly to the musing of the old, experienced Hero (Strauss, of course) as he prepares for death. The solo violin, always representing the unfettered spirit in so many of Strauss' works, takes wing most movingly over a horn (his Father) and a softly breathing orchestra, bringing the piece to its natural, satisfying and touching conclusion. I shall never want to hear the second-thought ending again.
Luisi's Metamorphosen is no mere make-weight. The controversial Allied fire-bombing of Dresden on the nights of Feb 13-15th 1945 resulted in an appalling firestorm which destroyed much of the city. Strauss was devastated when he heard of the destruction of the Semperoper, and he began to pen this work for 23 solo strings as a threnody. The Dresdeners. of course, commemorate this event every year, and their playing here is almost superhuman, every string player bending bow and sinew to make this music a searing indictment of War. At times it seems to head into the psychologically haunted world of Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht, in pursuit of its own transfiguration of Strauss' stabbing motto theme and his final searing realisation that it was part of the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica symphony. The febrile twists and turns of the string lines, with others scurrying about like the flickering flames of the firestorm, are hypnotic and relentless. Luisi and his Dresden string players never let the listener loose concentration as the metamorphosis progresses to its inevitable and incandescent conclusion, with the richest tone and deepest emotion of any other performance from the many that I have heard.
A disc to cherish, then, and a very good omen for future issues of Sony BMG's Strauss Series at Dresden.
Copyright © 2007 John Miller and HRAudio.net