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I look forward to new recordings by Christian Thielemann, he is one of the most inspired modern day conductors of Late-Romantic, Austro-German repertoire. He's already recorded two Wagner operas! ( Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal ). Deutsche Grammophon clearly sees a winning talent on their team. Thielemann has also recorded several orchestral works of Richard Strauss. First came some early opera excerpts, then came a fine account of the Alpine Symphony coupled with the suite from Der Rosenkavalier and here we have his most recent foray into the Strauss works with this massive Ein Heldenleben and the 22 minute symphonic fantasy from Die Frau Ohne Schatten.
Right away from the opening of Hero's Life, you know you've got a true individual spirit on the podium leading the magnificient body of the Vienna Philharmonic. They sound grand and extravagant, Thielemann asks for plenty of weight from the basses up through to the soaring violins. There is a great depth of sound and people who generally prefer leaner readings, like Fritz Reiner's famous account on RCA, will initially be skeptical of Thielemann's go for the grandeur approach. The opening Hero section is majestic if a bit over-weighted, perhaps somewhat more impetus would have helped. The section with the critics goes by just fine and in the famous section with the Hero's Beloved we hear that Thielemann isn't here to dawdle or overplay anything. He moves things very nicely, just like Karajan did on his famous Heldenleben recordings. Remember that this whole violin portrayal of the wife can get rather tedious in the wrong conductor's hands, especially if their tempo is too slow. Thielemann succeeds by playing this section quite well, the strings in the second part are great and everything sounds like it's in it's natural tempo. Thielemann clearly knows what he's doing in the famous Battle Scene, there is power aplenty as well as sensuousness and inner detail. Ultimately he can't top or approach the madness, go for broke quality that Herbert von Karajan made you experience in the Battle Scene. I think Simon Rattle's recent EMI version is also slightly ahead of Thielemann in this part but certainly Christian is better than most of his competitors.
The later section with the Hero's Works of Peace and his Retirement from the World and Fulfillment are lovely, Thielemann focuses on the lovely melodies and some listeners who like to have things move more quickly might not like it but I thought it was very beautiful. All in all I would say that this Heldenleben is a winner, a truly muscular, if perhaps at times over-weighted, somewhat bloated account. The sound is great, detailed but with plenty of warmth and a lush, terrific perspective.
The Die Frau Fantasy is a must listen too. It's 22 minutes of music, most of the famous melodies from the opera are laced together to create this symphonic synthesis. The ravishing orchestral interludes of Act 2 in the opera don't find their way into this 22 minute synthesis, so you'll have to listen to a complete opera recording to hear them as well as all the gorgeous music of this work in full. I recommend Georg Solti's complete Die Frau Ohne Schatten on Decca as a reference recording for this majestic opera, one of Richard Strauss' finest achievements.
However, listening to this entire opera is a long haul indeed, so it is wonderful that Thielemann chose to record this Die Frau Fantasy to give people an exquisite taste of this seductive work. His performance is practically ideal, he brings the same qualities of the Heldenleben account to bear on this score. The warm, lush sound coupled with the great outbursts of orchestral power, it's fantastic. In making orchestal suites of operas, it's tough to put the material together in a cogent way, I think Strauss does fine but you'll really want to hear the opera itself after this. The climax of the work on this recording is strikingly powerful but in the opera it can get just overwhelming, what with the chorus and soloists singing their hearts out, it's amazing!
Anyway, look into the complete opera, this Thielemann recording is but a taste, cat-nip for all you lovers of Late-Romantic musical excess! A fine recording of both pieces under Christian Thilemann, even though his Heldenleben does not in anyway eclipse Herbert von Karajan's many versions, ( especially Karajan's great EMI recording from 1974 ), Thielemann does just fine when compared to his recent competitors in this music like Simon Rattle, whose Heldenleben on EMI I have also reviewed. Four stars for Thielemann, four stars for Rattle, always five stars for Karajan!