Willem Mengelberg/New York Philharmonic (1928)
Willem Mengelberg/Concertgebouw Orchestra (1941)
Strauss dedicated Ein Heldenleben to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw. Mengelberg's 1928 recording with the New York Philharmonic dominated its era. Despite some wonderful moments, particularly the concertmaster's (Scipione Guidi) lively and fearless extended solo in "The Hero's Companion," the playing of the Philharmonic is generally flaccid and unfocussed. They make a mess of the opening bars, for example. The Concertgebouw, on the other hand, has the attack of a trip-hammer and a much fuller tone. Mengelberg by that time had played the piece for over forty years and certainly had its measure. He and the Concertgebouw sharply chisel the work's outlines. They give their best in the grotesque sections, with a mosquito-like "Adversaries" and a raw "Battlefield." Nevertheless, this is one work of Strauss where you want glorious sound for the love music and, because of some of his most complex counterpoint, the sharp imaging possible from stereo, especially in the sections of "The Battlefield" and "The Works of Peace," where just about every bar contains superimposed quotations from works from Don Juan through Don Quixote. The Teldec transfer will astonish you for a recording of that vintage, but it can't measure up even to the 1954 sound of Fritz Reiner and the Chicagoans. Mainly for historians.
Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1954)
Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1954)
From the opening growl of the low instruments, Reiner and his orchestra pour out the music with exuberant glory. This is probably the most sheerly exciting Heldenlebens on record. Unlike some conductors, who act like they're slumming, Reiner clearly believes in the worth of the piece. He brings out the dualism of "The Adversaries": grotesque and insect-like for the adversaries, warmly Romantic for the hero's melancholy. Even the "Companion's" violin cadenza and the bass replies (for me, the weakest section) comes off with conviction, whereas one normally waits patiently for the love scene. The concertmaster, John Weicher, not only sails through the treble stops and flying fingerwork (at a few places he seems to have acquired 5 more fingers), but he also captures a personality, capricious, coquettish, and genuinely warm. With Reiner and his forces, the love music grows out of the comic byplay, as it does in no other recording. Other conductors elicit as much passion, but they fail to connect the two passages. Indeed, Reiner takes many huge strides through the piece. "Adversaries" through "Companion" go in one giant breath. "The Battlefield," wild as a Bosch painting, pulses through you, and the return of the opening material in magnificent peroration rekindles your enthusiasm for the work all over again. On the other hand, you pick out the various lines in "Works of Peace" with difficulty. In fact, if not listening for it, you can miss the opening canon between bassoon and English horn. Conductors like Karajan and Kempe solve the textural problems that stump Reiner. But these are quibbles. Reiner surely gets behind the notes in an extremely moving reading. From here to the end, "Renunciation and Fulfillment," he gives us a farewell almost worthy of Quixote, and with the pulsing timpani, shows the link to that masterpiece. The reminiscence of "The Battlefield" attacks like a nightmare, which the return of the love music quiets. Reiner lives up to the word "fulfillment" and gives us in the dialogues between the solo violin and the horn a long look at the operatic master to come.
Of the two releases of this performance, avoid the RCA. In both, external noise (usually, shifting stands) occasionally intrudes. However, the RCA comes with a poor Don Juan, whereas the other gives you a great Zarathustra. Furthermore, the transfer did not reduce a particularly annoying tape hiss. The RCA is clearly superior.
Deutsche Grammophon 429 717-2
Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic (1959)
How did Karajan ever get his reputation in Strauss? Certainly not from this Heldenleben in honey. Karajan seems simply uninterested. The opening, believe it or not, fails to stir the blood, despite the rich tone of the Berlin Philharmonic, mainly due to slack articulation. "Adversaries" and "Companion" mark time, with the love music played with little warmth, merely louder and slower. However, in the "Battlefield," something (maybe a cattle prod) galvanizes Karajan, and he takes us to war. The excitement hangs around through the "Works of Peace," where the conductor's technical wizardry untangles the counterpoint with unearthly clarity. By "Renunciation and Fulfillment," he temporarily runs out of gas but manages to recoup for the main climax and the coda. In the final pages, he genuinely moves us.
Rudolf Kempe/Dresden State Orchestra (1972)
A stolid reading. Not only do the Dresdeners lack a rich string tone (they sound about thirty players short), Kempe seems either ignorant of the location of climaxes or uncomfortable with its bombast. He holds back at moments (the opening, "Adversaries," the love scene, for example) where he should jump off and soar. He takes the beginning of "Adversaries" like a counterpoint exercise. Under Kempe, the love scene, modeled after the passionate duets in Tristan, has tenderness, but no heat. The battle, with some of the most astonishing sounds in the entire piece, becomes just another symphonic allegro. If bombast scares you, avoid Strauss altogether.
Christoph von Dohnányi/Cleveland Orchestra (1992)
The opening may not hit with the visceral impact of the Reiner, but it crackles, and, at its restatement, Dohnanyi turns up the heat. Dohnanyi emphasizes the dark, almost neurotic side of the work. We get passion in the love music, but despite swirling harp, rich horns, and strings on high, this time the music strikes you as tragic, rather than ardent. This could be the second Liebestod. Dohnanyi practically time-travels in the "Battlefield"; he emphasizes the novelty of the orchestration to such an extent that you feel like you're listening to Pacific 231. It makes a terrifying noise. Still, the victory of the hero is not in doubt. At the recapitulation of the opening material and the sounding of the splendid horn call from Don Juan, the players are at their most heroic yet. They thrill you. Dohnanyi has held back for this moment – a gamble that pays off. "Works of Peace" could serve as a music trivia quiz, with thirty-two self-quotes incorporated into a highly contrapuntal texture. In Dohnanyi's hands, you not only hear every quote, the section actually moves you, beyond its technical trick.
The highpoint of the performance is the final section, "Renunciation and Fulfillment," noble despite the interruption of the battle music. Dohnanyi makes much of the duet between horn and violin and of their separate progresses to their final Ebs – the horn deep in the earth, the violin in the empyrean. The penultimate, slightly surprising, chord in the brass also gets extra weight before giving way to the final Eb-major from the full orchestra.
This interpretation takes some getting used to, but it has its rewards as an alternate to the Reiner. It is even more splendidly played, and it has more emotional layers, as well as the advantage of state-of-the-art sound. You can sum up Reiner's interpretation as "heroism, forces of darkness, and passion." With Dohnanyi, you say "heroism (or passion) … but." Both are legitimate views of the work.
Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony (1992)
This splendid reading runs closer to Reiner's than to Dohnanyi's and, simply on the criterion of sonic quality, blows every other recording away in its crisp imaging and golden, glorious sound. Blomstedt puts a lot of drama into his account, so much so that I wondered how well he would do in opera. He certainly doesn't shy away from a raucous tone when he feels the music calls for it ("Adversaries," for example). He shapes "Companion" into the dialogue between violin and orchestra Strauss intended. When this section misses, it does so because the music for the violin and that for the low orchestra seem unrelated. Here, not only does the soloist portray a character, the orchestra does as well. Blomstedt gives us a scene which leads suddenly to the love music, which nearly out-Tristans Wagner himself. Still, Blomstedt doesn't push beyond the music's limits or make it a simple matter of decibels. He prepares the climaxes exquisitely, with a concern for the progress of the entire section. For one thing, the climaxes are not all at the same volume and they build. Furthermore, he beautifully shapes the fall-offs, as important as the builds. "The Battlefield" strides in with the power of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony (whose first movement I believe an heir). Blomstedt throws in everything he has. It stands your hair on end, but he miscalculates, since it overwhelms the return of the hero's music and thus distorts the work's overall structure. He doesn't manage to reclaim attention until the Don Juan horn call, by then too late. "Works of Peace" marks time, compared to Dohnanyi and Reiner, who find the emotional core of the music. By "Renunciation and Fulfillment," Blomstedt finds his way back to the true path. Even the return to the battlefield doesn't distract him. The music starts its journey to emotional heights surpassed only by Quixote. The solo violin and horn sing their noble, moving conclusion, and the brass offers its benediction.
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