Semyon Bychkov conducts Richard Strauss -
'This is a fine achievement by all concerned.'
Loathsome though I find the blatant egotism that conceptualises Strauss's Ein Heldenleben,
I have to confess that, in a great performance, I simply adore the noise it makes. In his
personal life, Strauss may have been an idealistic wannabee, and an unashamed self-publicist, but,
my goodness, he knew how to say it with notes and how to clothe it with fabulous orchestration!
When Strauss is firing on all cylinders, as here, the result can be an unashamedly thrilling
and spine-tingling experience. Such it is with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, perhaps
most of all in their stunning 1970s recording for EMI. Karajan was, ego-wise, like Strauss
himself, no shrinking violet, and what Strauss wrote with such burning conviction, Karajan
faithfully recreated with what, in his hands, and in this music, was undoubtedly the world's
finest orchestra. Heldenleben comes no better, and there is therefore little need to look
further, though I have always enjoyed Beecham's (slightly tongue-in-cheek, I suspect), unfolding
of these epic pages; and Barbirolli, who always loves the key of E flat to bits, and invests it
with Elgarian nobilmente, has a high place in my affections, too.
So the field is formidably well-served, and a new version will need to be very special
indeed if it is to hold its place in such exalted company.
Copyright © 21 October 2003
David Thompson, Eastwood, Essex, UK