A Crop of Recordings XIV: Richard Strauss, Bruckner, Brahms, and Wagner
STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben. Macbeth • Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra • PENTATONE PTC5186582 (Streaming Audio: 66:23)
Here is a really lovely performance of Ein Heldenleben, perfectly recorded in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper. From the very first note—that rich ocean-liner steam whistle signifying a voyage through life—it’s satisfying—if, that it is—you like things a bit understated. You are sitting about row “K,” and the orchestra is laid out before you at a slight distance. Listeners familiar with the many videos of this orchestra on YouTube will not be disappointed at the fine balances and purring nature of the sound. This is a satiny, swift reading, gently beautiful, supple and romantic in an undemonstrative way. It reminds me of Reiner’s and Kempe’s versions, both of which bring the piece home similarly at around 45 minutes. There does exist an unusually energized 44 minute Ein Heldenleben to be found from François-Xavier Roth and the SWR Orchestra on Hänssler—if astringent and mean Strauss is to your taste—but most versions lean the other way, a minute or two longer than Orozco-Estrada. The result is frequently a certain tendency to huff and puff which can coarsen the music, though Manfred Honeck and his remarkable Pittsburgh Symphony horns transcend that on their Exton CD. Honeck is vivid, original, passionate and conducts with a lot of push-me-pull-you.
But I sometimes like a gentler approach and a different mood. Orozco-Estrada is not a rubato conductor, and one can be critical of his tendency to lead everything as if it were well-blended Mendelssohn. But his ear for Strauss is flawless here, and indeed that is what one keeps noticing—even within the chaos of the battle scene—how appealing it all is—a beautiful work.
I wish I could be equally pleased with Orozco-Estrada’s recording of Macbeth. Unfortunately, it was miked at the Basilika Kloster Eberbach, Eltville—a cavernous venue—and most of its impact is lost. Brass and strings are swimming out there somewhere. But the effect is coarse and blatty—problematic in this piece—whose beginning and ending verge on bombastic. The saving grace for Macbeth is a central episode about seven minutes in—a striding march that eventually sweeps itself aloft in a burst of noble ecstasy. Its uplift depends on a great surge of brass and syncopated timpani—nearly inaudible here. Fortunately, the listener has many good choices for this tone poem. Pentatone’s own CD with Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony is extremely fine, for instance. And I’m especially fond of Eliahu Inbal and the Suisse Romande on Denon. Both are gorgeously recorded.
So here we are—120 years of “heroics” later. History seems to have validated what surely seemed intolerable hubris at the time. Strauss actually was a hero of sorts. And when we listen to Ein Heldenleben painted in subtle colors, as here, we might think him a Rembrandt in music.
STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben. Intermezzo: 4 Symphonic Interludes • Andrew Davis, conductor; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra • ABC Classics 4812425 (Streaming Audio: 69:59 Live: Melbourne)
This is a wonderful, luxurious version of Ein Heldenleben, played and recorded live without compromise by the Melbourne Symphony. It may not really be necessary to stress this, but I find concertgoers still ask if Australian orchestras are as good as their European and North American counterparts. So be reassured. This CD is as beautiful as any Sir Andrew Davis has made—with any orchestra. It’s a warm, affectionate reading, setting out aboard ship with a throbbing whistle-blast that purrs through your feet—and winding up richly rewarded and warmly recollected safely in port. It manages to be vivid without attacking the listener and moving without being sentimental. I’ve been repeatedly drawn back to listen again.
In recent years there has been little question of the high quality musicianship to be found in Sydney—and from the CD lover’s special standpoint—in Melbourne. The Melbourne Symphony has been fortunate in Hamer Hall, its recording venue. Whether capturing Ives symphonies for Chandos, or Strauss with the ABC as here, Hamer consistently delivers deep textures and immediacy without harshness. The strings here are “Straussian supple” in an easy winning way, horns voluptuous and present. Percussion is gleaming and low. There is high impact—in the battle scene most prominently, of course—but not a hint of “public address system tilt” from trumpets and cymbals which can cut into the listener. If all halls sounded as good as this CD—up close but velvety—the concert world would be making acoustic progress.
There is plenty of Strauss on CD for every mood and taste, of course. This month’s Fanfare also prints my review of a sleek, nearly Mendelssohnian version of Ein Heldenleben by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony led by Andrés Orozco-Estrada. It demonstrates little of the color Andrew Davis finds in this music—but exhibits a sort of George Szell-like understatement. I expect I am as much an easy mark as anyone, though, for the guilt-free delights of Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony. I doubt there is a better current version to be found.
The Four Interludes from Intermezzo are led here in the same sensitive Straussian spirit. I wish we heard them more often. Traumerei Am Kamin, in particular, is one of Strauss’s most moving flights of nostalgia and firelight reminiscence—worthy of Der Rosenkavalier and the Four Last Songs. There’s a reason Strauss’s music means so much to people. This CD reminds me. He knew how to hang-glide with the human heart.
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 8 (ed. R. Haas) • Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor; West German Radio Symphony Orchestra • HÄNSSLER PROFIL PH16061 (74:38)
Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is one of the great cathedrals in our symphonic repertory. With each passing decade, the symphony looms in gothic majesty more impressively before stunned and obedient audiences. But at the same time, Bruckner conducting has surely consumed too much growth hormone. The Bruckner symphonic façade keeps rising. The nave keeps elongating—and every gargoyle now glows with a personal uplight—to the point that a Bruckner Eighth experience has evolved into a mystical event lengthy enough for Bayreuth. Droopy stasis has become part of Bruckner—the way it did, over time, with Beethoven’s Ninth. Perhaps revisionism should begin here.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste has always demonstrated the great musical virtue of getting on with things. The Nielsen Symphonies with which Saraste first came to public acclaim on CD were characterised by a great deal of forward motion and little waiting around. It’s hard to remember back far enough, but Bruckner was once conducted like normal music—more quickly as a matter of course—without the mesmeric silences. Wilhelm Furtwängler, for example, led this edition of the Eighth Symphony in 1949 in Berlin at a timing of 76 minutes (and almost always no more than a minute more slowly.) But Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic, performing decades later, come in at 83 minutes on CD. In the Nowak edition, Celibidache takes 106!
At 74 minutes, Saraste is a lot closer to the tempo sense one used to have before the Mahler craze persuaded conductors every moment should be milked for metaphysical wisdom. Until recently, you’d find me listening to Boulez with the Vienna Philharmonic, who manages to sweep through this work on CD with swift but mushy beauty. I like this sonically clearer, harder-hitting, more violent Cologne traversal from Saraste even better, though. It dates from 2010. Saraste reveals touches of impatient power—in the convulsive first movement development climax—in the Scherzo’s hypnotic rotations—in the finale’s eager kettledrum grace notes. I will admit that nobody can float you away on celestial harps like Karajan in the Adagio, but Saraste keeps this movement going forward with great satisfaction and applies portamento in such a strong manner that the swoops push the music ahead.
My German-born father had the privilege of hearing Nikisch conduct before the First World War in Wilhelmine Germany. He used to say “Bruckner never gets anywhere.” If that’s the way solid burghers thought of this music at the swifter speeds common back then, what on earth would they make of the tempo sludge so common today? It’s eye-opening, really, to play Bruckner like Brahms. Guess what? It isn’t religion after all. It’s music! Now if someone would just conduct it like Holst…hmm.
BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 • Howard Griffiths, cond; Frankfurt Brandenburg State O • KLANGLOGO KL1514 (71:47)
These are lovely, swift, gentle-scaled Brahms performances of a sort we don’t often hear. I’ll steer the listener to excellent program notes for a full explanation of the confluence of scholarship which leads to playing them this way. But simply put, Howard Griffiths records the symphonies in a new urtext edition and conducts according to the score markings of Fritz Steinbach—whose student, Walter Blume, passed them down in Brahms in the Meiningen Tradition. The symphonies emerge supple, rustling and transparent, without heaven-storming tendencies and bereft of the inner darkness most conductors find in them. That may be a liability. Yet there is something serene and leafy about playing Brahms Symphonies as if they were cousins of Mendelssohn’s The Fair Melusine.
If you can get used to pretty Brahms, summer Brahms down by the lake—and not be angry at the music for failing to declaim loudly—then shorter phrases, the little tongue-lick touches of cello portamento and feather-light woodwind dovetailing will be immensely appealing. This is genuine historical performance—not the deluded HIP theoretics of Roger Norrington, who managed to persuade himself all composers should be conducted like Handel. There are no wheezing cutlery sword-fights here among the violins, no lunging Rottweilers masquerading as timpanists and no trumpeters secretly employed by hearing-aid manufacturers. Missing, too, is any of the fake heartiness which turns so many a chamber-orchestra concert into an unsolicited athletic experience. It’s not needed. The forces here are large enough to avoid strain, yet small enough to be graceful. And the Klanglogo engineers have supplied a fine airy soundstage.
It’s fair to say we have a cozy, civilized musical world here. Tempos are fast/normal. Nothing is eccentric. Of course, Howard Griffiths is no more Fritz Steinbach than José Serebrier is Leopold Stokowski. (I’m old enough to have heard both live and know the difference.) So one will always yearn for the time machine which could tell us if Brahms really heard his symphonies this way. Scores and their markings are blueprints, after all—concert performances mere tent edifices torn down after the event. We really have no idea what it all sounded like….
WAGNER Overtures. Preludes. Orchestral Excerpts • Marek Janowski, conductor; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra • PENTATONE PTC5186551 (2CDs:131:33)
Marek Janowski has been recording Wagner live for Pentatone with the Berlin Radio Symphony for some time now. This program containing what used to be called “bleeding chunks” is a compilation extracted from Janowski’s opera CDs released between 2010 and 2015 and recorded in the Philharmonie. Compilations represent guilty pleasure to purists but—for orchestra lovers—perhaps the quickest route to Wagner’s genius. In the long history of such releases, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Herbert von Karajan, Erich Leinsdorf, Lorin Maazel and Marek Janowski, himself, stand tall. Janowski’s 1993 collection with Radio France, still available on Erato is a fine example of the breed, fluid and nicely miked.
This isn’t. Marek Janowski is one of those sensible conductors who teeters on the edge of dullness and occasionally falls over into it. The preludes and overtures here come across profoundly wooden, impatient and sonically colorless. Even the Siegfried Idyll lacks magic, despite some nice portamento. I was hoping for the opposite from Pentatone—and from the acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie—but the soundstage is up-close, slightly nasal and lacking “float”. If you can’t wing away on your imagination with Wagner, what’s the point? Everything here is stiff as a board. Only the Flying Dutchman overture, which has something boxy built into its sonority already, escapes full censure. And you can forget about harmonic resolution in Tristan. Because these are excerpts from the opera in performance, there is no orchestral Liebestod. And Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, compared with the concert version, is missing its main horn melody and attacks the listener midstream, so to speak. But program isn’t the problem. What we have here is a failure of the imagination.
Take the Tristan prelude to Act III. Leopold Stokowski would make this roll through your mind as if it were a cathedral. Even an obscure orchestra like the Hagen Philharmonic, under Antony Hermus for Acousense Records, captures its deep brooding mystery. Here it just goes by without seeming to plumb the reaches of its own harmonic interest.
Adding insult to injury, there is a horrible engineering mistake midway through Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. About three and a half minutes in, suddenly the brasses take off at double the appropriate volume level on a spot-mike, nearly knocking the listener over. The idea of producing these CDs may have been a good one. But the results are disappointing. And from the standpoint of Pentatone’s reputation, they should never have been made. Steven Kruger