R Strauss: Ein Heldenleben; Le Bourgeois gentilhomme – suite for orchestra

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COMPOSERS: R Strauss
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: R Strauss
WORKS: Ein Heldenleben; Le Bourgeois gentilhomme – suite for orchestra
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: 339 3392
EMI’s last Berlin-based recording of Heldenleben featured Karajan on the front cover looking mean and moody in a leather jacket. Rattle’s hero is certainly of that ilk – masterful rather than spontaneous in lovemaking, more self-satisfied than ebullient in victory over his adversaries. And he’s rarely prone to that kind of spring-heeled humour which – in an ideal interpretation like Tilson Thomas’s (on Sony, currently unavailable; try Reiner in the meantime for panache) – saves the work from charges of Bismarckian grandiosity. At least the critics as portrayed by the excellent Berlin woodwind are nasty good fun, and the ‘works of peace’, very gently unfolded and reviewed in tranquillity, are worth a gold medal. But the hero’s wife as portrayed by BPO leader Guy Braunstein, while rather sweet – which is half the point – is incapable of being a real bitch; her bark simply isn’t loud enough. The sound, a brilliant re-ordering of Berlin Philharmonie acoustics, sets collective strings right in your face – good for such details as the double-bass cross rhythms near the beginning of the work and the Mahler Sixth-style torrents in the battle, yet with sufficient air around violins.

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Strauss’s early-neoclassical Bourgeois gentilhomme is the perfect antidote, long a Rattle party-piece. While this account lacks the total polish of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s version (DG, not currently available), it’s certainly eye-opening in the orchestral solos for the Fencing Master and the dish of songbirds served up at supper. David Nice