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Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40, Symphonic Fantasy from
Die Frau ohne Schatten
Rainer Honeck, solo violin
Christian Thielemann conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Review By Max Westler

 

  Thielmann doesn't want for audacity. Still young and largely unknown, he got international attention by announcing that he had seen the future of Germanic musical tradition, and its name was Christian Thielemann. Even sympathetic critics doubted that a long apprenticeship in provincial opera houses had somehow qualified Thielemann to assume the mantle of Furtwangler, but DG signed him on anyway, perhaps hoping that the photogenic, well-groomed conductor might become their new Karajan. If so, the first few examples of their partnership proved disastrous: muddled versions of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies followed by a complete cycle of Schumann symphonies that turned the music into unrecognizable mush. Clearly Thielemann was capable of large, romantic gestures, but those interpretations lacked any trace of musical taste or intelligence.

Since then, Thielemann has been more judicious in both his choice of repertory and his interpretations; but so far the results have been mixed: a disappointing Bruckner Fifth, a winning but unexceptional Carmina Burana, and a pairing of Schoenberg's Pelleas and Melisande and Wagner's Siegfried Idyll  that at least suggests the great conductor that Thielemann so desperately wants to be.

Since I had also admired his Alpine Symphony, I was looking forward to hearing this new Heldenleben, but it turns out to be a curiously uneven, and in the end, disappointing affair. On the plus side, Thielemann has much to say about the music, and in general there is a welcome freshness and imagination in this live performance. The hero's critics are a dour bunch to be sure, but here they also sound ghostly, insubstantial. Though some will find the romantic episode between the hero and his "companion" a little on the kitschy side, I rather enjoyed the Rosenkavalier-like humor and playfulness Thielemann brings to their courtship. When the flirtation turns into love, he's able to project an appropriate sense of ecstasy and tenderness. The final pages of the score also go well, the hero taking his leave with appropriate gravitas and resignation.

Recently, a conductor complained that critics (like me, I guess) are often too quick to compare new performances of repertory pieces to well-known instances from the past. Why not judge each new performance on its own merits, and resist the temptation to indulge in comparisons that inevitably favor the old over the new? In this case, it's Thielemann himself who has made such comparisons inevitable. And the sad truth is, when set beside the work of three justly famous Strauss conductors--Reiner (with the Chicago), Karajan (his early stereo recording with the Berlin Philharmonic), and Kempe (from his complete cycle with the Dresden Orchestra)--it's clear just how far short of the mark he falls.

As different as they are from each other, Reiner, Karajan and Kempe are able to sustain Strauss's big tunes with a long-breathed, singing line that emphasizes the nobility and beauty of the music (and thereby avoids any hint of vulgarity). Of all the tone poems, Heldenleben calls for the largest orchestra, and controlling those huge forces is a conductor's greatest challenge, for the scoring must never sound ponderous or turgid. Reiner, Karajan and Kempe all emphasize the warmth and richness of Strauss's invention with a transparency that lets us savor every detail. Long experience has taught them how to balance virtuosity and expression in a way that makes the big moments seem all the more bone-jarring. In the hands of these three conductors (and others, of course), Ein Heldenleben can be life-affirming music, at once voluptuous and exhilarating.

No doubt Thielemann will also learn from experience, but right now he cannot match either the power or the subtlety of the older generation. Too often his phrasing is brusque and short-breathed, robbing Strauss's gorgeous melodies of their richness and grandeur. And though the Vienna Philharmonic plays well enough here, the performance often sounds ponderous and turgid. The introduction drags, and the battle scene takes too long to get off the ground. In the program notes, Thielemann seems to be telling us that his interpretation, like the music itself, springs directly from the heart. But in the end, the performance sounds as if it could have used at least another week of rehearsal. Unfortunately, the rather generalized, dry sound doesn't help.

The big moments from Die Frau ohne Schatten aren't as comfortably excerpted as those from Rosenkavalier, but I still enjoyed hearing these "bleeding chunks" from my favorite Strauss opera. Thielemann's vigorous, raucous, unsubtle approach works better here than in Heldenleben, for the "Symphonic Fantasy," as Strauss called it, requires a shorter attention span. Its 20+ minutes are full of incident and excitement, and Thielemann's enthusiasm for the music -- it is clear he adores every note -- carries the day. If you have any dead around the house that need awakening, this should do the trick.

 

Performance: (Ein Heldenleben)

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