Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: R Strauss
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Ein Heldenleben; Rosenkavalier Suite
PERFORMER: City of Birmingham SO/Andris Nelsons
CATALOGUE NO: C 803 091 A

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Birmingham’s hero Andris Nelsons is entitled to start his Straussian adventure with a grandiloquent flourish. The music-minus-two-or-three-voices of the Rosenkavalier Suite has never worked better to my ears, the Presentation of the Rose taken at a studied tempo few singers would appreciate, yet touched with the most delicate and beautifully balanced of silvery chords. 

If you take A Hero’s Life entirely seriously, as Nelsons seems to (though I’ve always thought Strauss did not) – he describes it in a fascinating booklet interview as ‘an idea, a vision, a dream, a utopia’ – then this is the one for you.

The great billows of an opening that leaps in slow motion, underpinned by those usually inaudible double-bass triplet pizzicato, are followed by a reversal of the usual speeds: Nelsons gets high velocity from his spitting critical woodwind, excellent, and then takes the protagonist’s wounded pride very slowly, but also very bel canto.

There’s a powerful study of the hero’s companion from leader Laurence Jackson, a muscly love scene and
a fabulously well-articulated battle. Then Nelsons’s seriousness pays off as Strauss himself rises to the mirage of heroism with the gold-thread tapestry of quotations in the ‘works of peace’ and a final leavetaking prefaced by the most magical cor-anglais led transition.

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Personally, I prefer those heroes who don’t try too hard, like Rudolf Kempe’s (on EMI) and Fabio Luisi’s (on Sony); but this is a spectacular display of discipline and power that is touched by warmth, and the live recording beautifully captures Nelsons’s orchestral balances. David Nice