R Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (with original ending); Metamorphosen

COMPOSERS: R Strauss
LABELS: Sony
ALBUM TITLE: R Strauss
WORKS: Ein Heldenleben (with original ending); Metamorphosen
PERFORMER: Staatskapelle Dresden/Fabio Luisi
CATALOGUE NO: 88697084712 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Dresden’s new music director, Italian conductor Fabio Luisi, may not look heroic enough to merit the four colour photographs in Sony’s stolid presentation, but his is a firm and handsome Heldenleben evoking in its own distinctive way the unflashy ease of the classic Staatskapelle performance conducted by Rudolf Kempe. Sticking to Kempe’s preferred venue of Dresden’s Lukaskirche, Sony’s production team presents a much less artificial picture of it than EMI did back in the 1970s: a model canvas to match what remains an orchestral paragon of unforced sophistication.

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Clad in silk, Luisi’s protagonist moves articulately and nimbly to two spacious climaxes in the introduction, protests with feeling against a rather discreet bunch of critical adversaries and responds sensitively to his companion’s capriciousness (an incredibly cultured violin solo, iron fist in velvet glove, from Dresden principal Kai Vogler). The battle, surmounted by the tireless Dresden first trumpeter, is appropriately metallic without resorting to raucous overkill, and the hero’s return ineffably noble. Strauss’s noble tapestry of his major themes up to that point in the ‘Works of Peace’ takes spacious wing, with everything in perfect balance.

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Like Wolfgang Sawallisch on EMI, Luisi has gone for the original quiet curtain, shorn of what Strauss wryly called the brassy ‘state funeral’ we usually hear and boasting a lullaby-like harmonic simplicity poetically rendered by this violin and horn duet. That also makes a more discreet and appropriate point of departure for the much later elegiacs of Metamorphosen. Here Vogler’s prominent role is matched by the principal cellist, and Luisi crucially refuses to rush the central remembrance of things past, again building climaxes naturally so that the dark force of the returning funeral rites has maximum impact. A splendid augury of things to come in this team’s Strauss series. David Nice