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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Recordings Review: He's No Hero, That's Understood

Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra unleash Strauss tone poems.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Helmsman: Paavo Järvi leading the NHK Symphony Orchestra.
Photo by Belinda Lawley © 2017 NHK
The NHK Symphony Orchestra is one of the twenty-four professional ensembles that call Tokyo, Japan their home, a mind-boggling number to the critic who lives in a culture where the arts are treated as some sort of afterthought by those  who see to the dispersal of public funds for such matters. So far, the pairing of the orchestra with Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi has been a fruitful one. The first harvest from his term as music director is an exciting new recording, made in Suntory Hall of two very familiar Richard Strauss tone poems: Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben.

On this live recording, the first salvo of Don Juan bursts forth with vitality and energy. The NHK players show command of Strauss’ detailed orchestration and turns of phrase, delving deep into the harmonic fabric of this popular work. This is bright and optimistic music-making, suffused with the he sweeping, Romantic spirit of e legendary Spanish lothario. Strauss, at the peak of his early powers, chronicles the Don's adventures with the glee of Leporello scribbling census data into his infamous catalogue.

All that exuberance, expressed boldly by the horns and trumpets makes  the ending of Don Juan even more shocking, dramatic and effective. Mr. Järvi draws the orchestra to an abrupt minor key full stop, shifting meter into the grim mutterings of the final bars. The effect is simple, brutal and effective. Strauss doles out rough justice for the libertine, a virtuous reminder that for every would-be seducer, the party ends in a labyrinth of minor-key darkness.

Despite its title, mythic heroes and their deeds of derring-do are not the subject of Ein Heldenleben, the large scale work that concludes the main sequence of Strauss tone poems. (Yes, Ein Alpensinfonie is later but that work follows the first major operas from the composer’ pen.) Ein Heldenleben (”A Hero’s Life”) is about Strauss himself. In a sweeping, extended rondo that runs forty-five minutes and six movements, Strauss sketches his opponents, his musical achievements and most importantly (to Mr. Järvi at least) the "Hero’s Companion", a lyric solo violin part depicting Strauss wife Pauline played by the concertmaster.

The horns and expanded winds of the NHK Symphony do the heavy lifting in the opening of the work’s first movement, a stirring theme for horns over a bustling figure in the strings. This yields to the chirps mad squawks of "The Hero's Enemies," Strauss’ acid-etched portrait of....music critics. (We're honored.) Much more congenial music emerges with the Pauline sequence, the violin solo pouring major-key oil upon the muddled waters of the orchestra and soothing the listener with an outpouring of melody.

Only Strauss knew why it was necessary to insert a battle sequence in the middle of Ein Heldenleben. However, his mastery of the orchestra extended to distant trumpets and churning, marching percussion. This war music yields to The Hero's Work's of Peace, a virtual catalogue of Strauss' orchestral achievements. Among the references: that all-too-familiar Don Juan horn solo, raging forth priapically in the middle of the orchestra.

A parade of references follows: the "backworldsmen" from Also Sprach Zarathustra, the churning windmills of Don Quixote and the snickering E flat clarinet from Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. The quality engineering and crisp laying makes it possible to hear all these in detail, mthanks to the glistening acoustic, excellent recording equipment and the able response of the Tokyo players to Mr. Järvi's direction. 

The final movement yields the most sublime music of this work: a long and eloquent development of the brass "hero" theme representing Strauss himself. The composer intertwines it, slowly with the a reprise of the solo violin that represents his wife. In this, "The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion" Mr. Järvi finds eloquence where so many other conductors strive for empty effect. This is a Strauss recording that the composer--who was still an active artist in the early years of the classical recording industry--would have been most pleased with.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.