STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben Thielemann

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RICHARD STRAUSS

Ein Heldenleben
A Hero's Life

Symphonische Fantasie aus
Symphonic Fantasy from
»Die Frau ohne Schatten«
Wiener Philharmoniker
Christian Thielemann
Int. Release 01 Aug. 2003
1 CD / Download
CD DDD 0289 474 1922 8 GH


Track List

Richard Strauss (1864 - 1949)
Wiener Philharmoniker, Christian Thielemann

Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Rainer Honeck, Wiener Philharmoniker, Christian Thielemann

Wiener Philharmoniker, Christian Thielemann, Rainer Honeck

Total Playing Time 1:09:00

Even Thielemann cannot tame all the bombast that makes "Ein Heldenleben" so difficult for some listeners, but he does find a rare sense of humanity behind the superhuman exterior . . . The orchestral playing here is magnificent, as it is also in the operatic fantasy . . . The live recording from the Musikverein captures to perfection the full dynamic range and the conductor's carfeful balancing.

There is great empathy between young German conductor Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Phil in this repertory, with their full-blooded live performance of "Ein Heldenleben" falling robustly into the frame as ideal in-store listening material.

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 . . . And the live Vienna Musikverein recording captures every detail of this multi-layered score. The coupling is no mere makeweight, either.

Thielemann emphasises the music's humanity rather than its bombast, and remarkably succeeds in doing so without undermining its grandeur . . . The "Frau ohne Schatten" fantasy is a rare and interesting filler, its wonderful opening melody launching Strauss's deftly assembled extract from the most exotic of his opera scores. And the clarity and balance of the recordings, both live, is another major plus.

Has there ever be a more sumptuos sounding yet insistently detailed account on disc? . . . Superb playing; remarkable conducting.

. . . this new Strauss program is really quite stunning. All of "Heldenleben"'s complexities are completely under control, as the protagonist and his circumstances are vividly characterized. . . . Thielemann achieves flawless balances and utter transparency here, as he generates a sense of line and tension. The closing pages of the work are sublime, a glorious sunset. . . . The recorded sound is rich, detailed, and weighty. The sonic perspective is immediate . . .

Thielemanns Konzertmitschnitt des zweifellos ungemein gut gemachten Paradestücks ist von Genauigkeit, minutiöser Klangschattierung und einer durchaus "gesunden", nicht zu komplizierten Sinnlichkeit gekennzeichnet, die frei ist von falschem Pathos und rauschhafter Kraftmeierei: Das "Heldenleben" entpuppt sich als in Wahrheit eben gar nicht überhitzte "Fin du siècle"-Nervenmusik. Es finden sich in der Einspielung unprätentiös herzenswarme Töne . . . und zarte, nuancenreiche Farben. Natürlich wird zwischendurch auch saftig aufgedreht. "Die Frau ohne Schatten". In diesem Umfeld besticht gerade auch die kammermusikalisch-delikat und wiederum nicht zu schwergewichtig, jedoch in prachtvoll-wienerischem Klang musizierte 'Symphonische Fantasie' aus der "Frau im Schatten" . . . In der Aufnahme kommt diese Klangkultur besonders schön und gültig zum Ausdruck.

Mit straffen Tempi und weit gefassten Bögen führt er ohne Längen durch die Dichtung. Die Wiener sorgen dafür, dass auch kleinste Details nicht unter die Räder kommen. Ein Genuss.

So akribisch hat noch keiner der namhaften Strauss-Exegeten der letzten fünfzig Jahre, auch nicht Strauss selbst, diese größte seiner Tondichtungen in ihrer rythmischen und harmonischen Vielschichtigkeit und Klangfarbenpracht durchleuchtet.

Dass ein Dirigent bei Richard Strauss -- besonders beim "Heldenleben" und erst recht bei der "Frau ohne Schatten"-Fantasie -- herzhaft zugreift, versteht sich eigentlich von selbst. Man kennt das Ergebnis: pompöse Gründerzeitmusik, äusserlich gigantisch, innen hohl. Genau das passiert Christian Thielemann, wenn er Strauss dirigiert, nicht. Für ihn ist das eine Herzensangelegenheit, und wenn er die "Frau ohne Schatten"-Fantasie dirigiert, pulsiert in den blässlich-hemdsärmligen Strukturen dieser Musik plötzlich warmes Blut, weil er die Musik weithin als Kammermusik versteht. Und in der Tat, die Herzen der Wiener Philharmoniker scheinen ihm da einzeln zuzufliegen: Derart klangfarbenprächtig habe ich diese Orchesterfantasie noch nie gehört. Das flirrt und blinkt, leuchtet und glänzt, wird aber nie zum Selbstzweck, weil Thielemann die Musik dauernd auf Trab hält. Da werden Nerven gleichsam freigelegt -- auch im "Heldenleben", das zwar mit Pomp auffährt, gleichzeitig aber Pomp nicht mit Lautstärke verwechselt. Von klanglichem Fett bleibt der Zuhörer verschont; die Musik wirkt feinnervig und zeigt nicht nur ihre kraftmeierischen, sondern auch ihre verletzlichen Seiten.

Auch diese Live-Aufnahmen aus dem Goldenen Saal des Wiener Musikvereins zeigen, wie kongenial Thielemann mit diesen Partituren umgeht... Strauss, Wagner, Pfitzner -- das ist die Musik, zu der Thielemann eine wahrhaft einzigartige Affinität besitzt.

Bei Thielemann klingt sie [Strauss' Musik ] nie banal. Und er bringt wie kaum jemand den speziellen Streicher-Ton der Wiener zum Leuchten.

Das symbolträchtige Märchen, »Die Frau ohne Schatten«-Suite, führt Christian Thielemann nicht wie ein komfortables österreichisch-bajuwarisches Rührstück vor, sondern lädt es mit rühmenswerter dramatischer Intensität. Das verrät bedeutende Differenzierungskunst. Die Wiener Philharmoniker sorgen live zwar für rauschende, doch nie unkonturierte Tutti. Im »Heldenleben« meidet Thielemann überzogene Schönmalerei. Das Orchester (prächtig die Violinsoli von Rainer Honeck) brilliert in den differenzierten Klangräumen.

Zu spüren ist jederzeit die vitale Freude des Wagner- und Strauss-Dirigenten Thielemann an der Inszenierung eines glutvollen symphonischen Heldenepos', am detailgetreu, stets transparent ausgespielten Kampfesgetümmel des Helden, auch am raffinierten Orchesterrubato der lang gezogenen lyrischen Abschnitte. Ein kraftvoll diesseitiges, gleichwohl poetisch nuanciertes Musizieren von souveräner Geschlossenheit.

On admire la transparence de la polyphonie, la maîtrise de l'architecture d'ensemble (la fin du troisième épisode repose exclusivement sur la pure magie des sonorités) comme l'intériorité sincère du ton -- de manière nettement plus diffuse que dans la "Symphonie alpestre" parue, le son conserve sa densité presque wagnérienne.

Comment parvenir au grandiose sans tomber dans le grandiloquent ? Christian Thielemann y arrive avec maestria : il y avait longtemps que les musiciens viennois n'avaient retrouvé, au disque, la sonorité capiteuse qui sied à ce répertoire. Subtil et puissant, minutieux et visionnaire, il construit son interprétation sans se laisser piéger par le prosaisme du sujet, et dépoussière une oeuvre où l'on entend déjà Alban Berg . . . d'une beauté tout aussi sidérante.
    On a knife-edge

Ein Heldenleben - this large-scale symphonic ego trip by a brilliant German musician courting self-glorification - cannot be just a dazzling misunderstanding. After all, this lovable monster has always gone down well with audiences and always been a favourite with virtuoso performers, in spite of the fact that for more than a century it has had to live with the reproach that, aesthetically speaking, it is a botched and sorry effort. Yet this is a reproach that the work has splendidly refuted.

"Ein Heldenleben, Berlin-Charlottenburg, 27 December 1898", the composer noted down after the final bar line at the end of the score. Strauss, who had only recently moved to the German capital, had already made a name for himself as a musician and was being hailed as Wagner's legitimate heir, even though his career as an opera composer had barely begun. Expectations ran commensurately high. Recently appointed Kapellmeister to the Royal Court Opera in Berlin, he watched the 19th century draw to a close and at least on an instinctive level must have had mixed feelings about the turn of the century. When we listen to Ein Heldenleben today, we think of the Gründerzeit (the years after 1870 when the new Reich grew prosperous as a result of industrialization), the fin de siècle and the mania for historical monuments associated with Wilhelminian Germany. Yet these labels merely scratch the surface of Strauss's tone poem, describing, at best, its admittedly grandiose exterior. It bears the unmistakable imprint of its time in a positively ostentatious manner, and because the age was Wilhelminian, certain elements of this have found their way into the work. Yet they affect only the outward appearance of a piece that was written for the most part in Munich, a city intellectually remote from the Kaiser's court. Strauss, after all, was an archetypal, life-affirming Bavarian who never learnt the ways of the Berliners any more than he was later to be assimilated into the Viennese way of life.

"That such an impetuous and triumphal display of his own personality was possible at all was due, of course, to the intellectual background of his age, the aesthetic outlook of which proclaimed extreme individualism", Strauss's friend and biographer, the Viennese critic Heinrich Kralik, conceded in 1963. If Ein Heldenleben now seems so typical of its time, this is not least because Strauss followed the lead of countless self-assured statesmen, artists and scientists who used their own lives as a pretext for important self-portraits. He must have been hugely attracted by the idea of conjuring up a musical portrait of a composer 70 years after Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and of doing so, moreover, with seemingly effortless skill, with the petty-bourgeois private aspect of the piece coming off by no means a poor second. Thus, we find Strauss noting down in his diary in mid-April 1897: "12 o'clock, for the first time saw my little boy and my dear wife, who has now been restored to me. Symphonic poem Hero and World beginning to take shape. Franz Alexander flourishing, likewise his dear mama."

The piece begins in the "Eroica" key of E flat major and is one of the most powerful openings that Strauss ever wrote: he introduces his "hero" with a sweeping, energy-packed gesture - the words "heroic strength" appear alongside this distinctive theme in one of Strauss's sketchbooks. For his private "Eroica", Strauss was not, of course, content to use traditional, Classical and Romantic sonorities but decided to deploy his largest orchestra to date, including quadruple woodwind, eight horns, five trumpets and heavy brass, to say nothing of an off-stage orchestra. Strauss's close contemporary, Gustav Mahler, who achieved completely different results with equally massive means, was most emphatically not Strauss's model here.

But is it possible to clothe the essentially introvert aspects of an artist's life, including his development, struggles and even his delight in past achievements, in the hymnic language of orchestral sonorities that are larger than life and as a result run the risk of coarsening the subject? What is the point of all this noise? There seems to be no end to questions such as these, all of which are left hanging in the air by the music's intense awareness of its own power. The Dresden music critic Ernst Krause attempted to answer this question in 1955, when he drew attention to parallels with the history of art: "If there is anything that this score suggests with its propensity for the over-loud, it is the artistic ideal of Jugendstil magnificence. Even so, it would be wide of the mark to see in Strauss's subjectively intensified self-esteem (which is not at all the same as an overestimation of his own worth) and the exaggerated cult of the bourgeoisie a flat colour print of Hans Makart. Rather, the listener may be put in mind of Lovis Corinth's sensual and life-affirming self-portrait with a female model. The same healthy artistry invests both works, the same combination of genuine pathos and naive humanity, but also the same subtle shadings in the application of deep colours. Just as Strauss's orchestra attracts new instruments, so his world of sound is enriched by chamberlike textures. It is here, above all, that the work's musical qualities emerge from behind its superficial programme."

The French writer and late Romantic humanist Romain Rolland, who taught the history of music at the Sorbonne, thought that he could detect a more heartfelt message in Ein Heldenleben, a message no less enthusiastic, even if that enthusiasm is different in kind: "If this music still glows white-hot today, imagine how much it seethed on leaving the mouth of the furnace! It burnt our tongues, our breath was on fire! [...] Blaring trumpets stoked the flames; [...] abysses opened up, abysses into which the musical idea seemed close to plunging, only to reappear again thanks to its incredible ability to get back on its own two feet. We danced on a knife-edge. [...] The mediocre melodies were little better than Mendelssohn's, of course, but the harmonic and rhythmic invention, the dazzling orchestration, the dramatic intelligence, and the sheer willpower were tremendous. Even now, I doubt whether there was any other time in Strauss's career when the arrow of life flew higher than here."

The scene now changes to a break in the recording sessions in the Musikverein in Vienna, where the conductor Christian Thielemann expresses his views on the work: "Egomania? No - and if it is, then why not? I know that many people have their own thoughts on this - and that's fine by me. But those people who think about it too much merely make life more difficult for themselves. They think it's kitsch. I don't have any problems with that, because for me Ein Heldenleben is simply incredibly good music."

In making this claim, Thielemann - who is general music director in Berlin - is appealing to the audience to regard this as music that comes from the heart and to accept it as such. He thinks that this is possible, especially in Vienna. He is enthusiastic about the Vienna Philharmonic's response to Strauss's music: although he sets the tone as conductor, he does not need to make any demands or to force them to do things against their will. "They simply know of their own accord what they have to give." And he points to countless examples in the score (especially in the allegedly infernal battle music) to indicate that it is not only volume, speed and power that are demanded here but also sensuous sonorities, transparency and feeling - a sensitivity, in short, that is normally encountered only in chamber music. This sensitive, yet restrained and above all sensuous approach to Strauss's music has earned Thielemann the greatest possible acclaim. Two years ago, Vienna's critics hailed his concert performances and recording of the Alpensinfonie, just as they have now acclaimed his reading of Ein Heldenleben in the Musikverein and, before that, at the Salzburg Festival.

With the resurgence of musical life in Vienna after the Second World War came the First Viennese International Music Festival, and it was within the context of this festival that Karl Bšhm conducted the first performance of a new work by Richard Strauss. First heard on 26 June 1947, the Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten was dedicated to Strauss's "dear friend" Manfred Mautner Markhof, who is still remembered not only as a major industrialist but also as president of the Vienna Konzerthausgesellschaft. "I have a lot of time for Strauss's practical, somewhat down-to-earth vein", says Thielemann. "It's unaffected, simply glorious, among the most beautiful products of this era! And it was authorized by him, it's clearly by him." Thielemann is referring to a potpourri of the most beautiful and memorable tunes from Strauss's symbolic, quasi-fairytale opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. The melodies are arranged in virtually the same order as that in which they appear in the opera. But Thielemann has two reservations: first, the orchestral forces used in the Symphonic Fantasy are slightly smaller than in the opera - as a pragmatist, Strauss was concerned above all that his works should be performed. And, secondly, Thielemann misses any excerpts from the ravishing orchestral interludes in Act Two and cannot understand why Strauss ignored these passages. "If it were possible, I'd like to ask him why he left them out", the conductor muses.

Walter Gürtelschmied
(Translation: Stewart Spencer)