Strauss: Ein Heldenleben / Webern: Im Sommerwind - Haitink
CSO Resound CSOR9011004
Classical - Orchestral
Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Webern: Im Sommerwind
Robert Chen (violin)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)
Review by John Broggio - June 1, 2010
My first encounter with Ein Heldenleben was with Haitink in his just famed account reissued here: Strauss: Ein Heldenleben - Haitink (although I have not heard this pressing), so I looked forward to this with great eagerness tinged with fear that this release might not match up to his more youthful account.
"The Hero" opens with one of the richest and most deep-throated roars on disc and immediately commands the attention of the listener and assuaged the fears I had. That is, until 38s in when the quavers in the upper strings and trumpets are unaccountably played with very little co-ordination of timing - bearing in mind that this is the conflation of 3 performances from December 2008, surely a better edit could have been found! This corrected itself over 5s which isn't very long but certainly feels it, especially so early on in the work. The rest of "The Hero" is suitably powerful and given a very upholstered sound that is wonderfully grand and is second to no-one, not even Karajan's Berliners at their peak.
"The Hero's Adversaries" are a mixed bunch with some, notably the clarinets, much more biting and acerbic than others (mainly the flutes). This is presumably what Haitink wanted as a depiction of reality (as critics do vary in the level of venom they use) rather than Strauss' markings which do not distinguish such nuances - some listeners, including this one, will feel a little short-changed here. In "The Hero's Companion", Robert Chen gives a lighter and easier account of Pauline Strauss' manner than do many (some deliberately, more through less than complete technical mastery) and the picture is wholly sympathetic which leads to a far more convincing "The Love Scene" than is often the case. Here Haitink relaxes and gives the orchestra's many wonderful wind and brass soloists their head and the voluptuous sound is fitting.
A dramatic change of mood occurs for "The Hero's Battlefield" and unlike many, Haitink and the CSO manage to bring out the contrasts between the critics and the striding hero theme like few others and certainly none of the competition on SACD; the continual presence of the heroic theme gradually grinds down the dissenting voices here more convincingly than in many hands. After recapping virtually all Strauss' key output to date, the conciliatory "The Hero's Works of Peace" returns the mood to the more sober and introspective feelings heard immediately before the battle before building to climaxes of great ardour that never spill over into vulgarity (all too easy in this score). At the opening of "The Hero's Retirement from the World and Fulfilment", Haitink releases the full force of the CSO as the hero rebels for one final time and then settles the listener into a wonderfully luxurious cushion of sound. Chen's violin soars gloriously in the final pages of the coda and transports the spirit into a higher place - wonderful stuff.
Compared to other discs, the most obvious direct competitor is Strauss: Ein Heldenleben - Jansons and, if it were not for that unfortunate glitch early on in the playing, this would be an easy first choice; Jansons is a good alternative if perfection is a must. As Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen - Luisi doesn't use the standard conclusion these discs supplement each other and any lover of this masterpiece should try to have both versions on the shelf. If anything, I fear that some may be repelled by the very perfection and lush sound that Haitink inspires in the CSO!
To complete the disc, the CSO and Haitink offer Webern's early "In Sommerwind" which was written before Webern adopted the dodecaphonic system of composition. It has many echoes of Strauss (although lacks the sheer weight of sound thanks to reduced brass forces) in both orchestration and melodic appeal and is a very appropriate choice. The playing and conducting taken from 4 concerts in April 2009 is every bit as committed and refined as the Strauss coupling.
The sound accorded to the CSO is very fine indeed and allows the listener to wallow in the voluptuous textures without getting bogged down. The audience is impressively quiet and can only be detected on a handful of occasions.
If one can overlook the opening untidiness, this is a wonderful disc and fully sets the seal on Haitinks re-creative output of this composer.
Copyright © 2010 John Broggio and HRAudio.net
Review by Graham Williams - July 5, 2010
The best performance on this disc is that of Webern’s early tone poem ‘Im Sommerwind’, an idyll for large orchestra, one of his final farewells to romantic compositions before he began his studies with Arnold Schoenberg and embraced serialism. It remained unpublished and unperformed until 1961, but has since gained a tenuous foothold in the concert hall and on disc.
Haitink’s glowing performance, superbly played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conjures up the languor of a hot summer’s day and encapsulates to perfection both the Straussian warmth of the piece and its occasional impressionistic touches. Concertmaster Robert Chen’s violin solos, as in the work that follows, are beautifully played so it is just a pity that the coughs and restlessness of the Chicago audience, captured all too clearly by the microphones, mar some of the quietest passages in this lovely work.
Haitink’s performance of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ is frankly something of a disappointment. Strauss was 34 when he composed this tone poem and it is the work of a young man at the height of his considerable powers. After the initial E flat chord, the opening statement of ‘The Hero’ should grip the listener with its forward thrust and dynamism, something that it patently fails to do here in spite of the magnificent orchestral playing. Haitink is too emphatic and earthbound rather than impetuous.
In the second section ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ the critics seem a dispirited bunch, tame rather than spiteful, but perhaps that is the way this conductor views them.
Robert Chen plays the difficult violin cadenzas of ‘The Hero’s Helpmate’ with much imagination and unfailingly lustrous tone. His vivid depiction of the moods and character of the capricious Pauline Strauss is ideal. Unfortunately the audience once again draws attention to its presence with a few clearly audible coughs, inevitably one of the perils of recording live in the month of December. Haitink seems mesmerised by the orchestra’s tonal magnificence and does allow a somnolent, rather than erotic atmosphere to develop in the second half of this section that for some reason is given a separate track entitled ‘The Love Scene’. At its conclusion the call to battle from the three off-stage trumpets is particularly thrilling, being both well balanced and suitably distanced.
Haitink is at his finest in the percussion dominated ‘The Hero’s Battlefield’ a section usually regarded as the weakest part of the score. Here the performance really takes fire with Haitink keeping all the complex threads balanced yet giving the orchestra its head. However, at the end of this section he slackens the tempo unnecessarily, and the horns’ quote from ‘Don Juan’ does not blaze as much as one would wish.
The final two sections, ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ and ‘The Hero’s Retirement from the World and Fulfilment’ are certainly well suited to Haitink’s un-demonstrative conducting style. In the former he melds the 30+ quotes from Strauss’s earlier works into a seamless flow that allows further appreciation of this great orchestra’s tonal refinement, while in the latter he achieves genuine nobility and serenity as the final bars are approached.
The recording quality is very good indeed possessing ambient warmth, refulgence and clarity.
However, to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on white-hot form in this work one must still turn to the 1954 Reiner version on Living Stereo Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben - Reiner. The panache and drive sometimes missing from this new recording are both realised there. The 2-channel sound quality belies its age, though patently it does not match the best of modern versions available on SACD. These include, in addition to this new one, Luisi and the Dresden Staatskapelle on Sony Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Metamorphosen - Luisi, but Luisi’s use of Strauss’s original quiet ending really puts his recording in a category of its own. The Janson’s recording Strauss: Ein Heldenleben - Jansons is well played though the performance is a little too comfortably plush and soft-centred. Unfortunately the conductor’s tasteless alteration to the final bars limits its appeal.
Haitink’s worthy performance will certainly have its admirers, but more visceral excitement is engendered by the versions mentioned above as well as on many more only available on RBCD. The door is still wide open for a really great modern recording of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ to appear on SACD.
Copyright © 2010 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net