WORKS: Ein Heldenleben; Die Frau ohne Schatten Symphonic Fantasy
PERFORMER: Vienna PO/Christian Thielemann
CATALOGUE NO: 474 192-2
Ein Heldenleben is the work that all anti-Straussians love to hate and devotees sometimes shy from – even the booklet note for this new release spends much of the time explaining away its bombast as an inevitable bi-product of German, Wilhelminian self-glorification. But in the hands of the right man, it becomes one of Strauss’s most coherently symphonic scores, an essay in E flat major heroicism as much as a pictorial guide to valiant exploits. And Christian Thielemann is that man. The Vienna Philharmonic could probably play this music in its sleep, but Thielemann rules with a rod of iron, shaping the music to perfection and drawing out all the colorific detail in Strauss’s scoring. The orchestra, fired up by performances at the Salzburg Festival and elsewhere, plays like a dream, its richness of tone and vibrancy of attack exceeding even the distinguished accounts from the Berlin Philharmonic with Karajan (DG) and the Dresden Staatskapelle under Kempe (EMI); solo violinist Rainer Honeck also gains by being a less saccharine love interest than Michel Schwalbé for Karajan. And the live Vienna Musikverein recording captures every detail of this multi-layered score.
The coupling is no mere makeweight, either. The symphonic fantasy Strauss drew from his fairytale opera Die Frau ohne Schatten at the end of his life may, as Thielemann laments in the booklet, omit some of the score’s purplest passages, but, when performed with the attention to drama, colour and emotion it receives here, inspires the feeling, in the best sense, that one has experienced the whole four-hour opera rather than a 20-minute pot-pourri. Matthew Rye