Strauss
Die Frau ohne Schatten – Symphonic Fantasia
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann

Recorded live in September 2002 in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein, Vienna
CD No: DG 474 192-2
Duration: 69 minutes
Reviewed: October 2003
Christian Thielemann prefers antiphonal violins, cellos left-centre, double basses behind them – the positioning that Richard Strauss would have written for, and which is here explicitly recorded. In many ways Thielemann is an old-fashioned maestro; he takes charge of music and makes it his own.
Such intervention can work two ways – indulgence or illumination. Here it’s very definitely the latter. Die Frau ohne Schatten, composed during the First War, has claims to be Strauss’s greatest stage work. The Fantasia he concocted late in life tends to reduce its stature. Indeed, its galumphing and emoting can be tiresome. Still, which ensemble better than the VPO to reveal it in the most favourable light; here, the orchestra plays wonderfully and Thielemann finds all the cross-fertilisation of texture that he can. Indeed, it’s the stabbing chords of this work that begin the CD rather than the sweep of Heldenleben, and with it the presence and focus of the recording is established.
Ein Heldenleben is glorious too, a wallower’s delight, which is not to say that Thielemann luxuriates in the music. In fact, the opening has thrusting energy, and establishes a very particular clarity and depth of sound, and one notes Thielemann’s long-term discrimination in creating a through-line of events. One can wallow in the VPO’s timbres too – rich, ripe and miraculously clear, although such auditory sprawl is impossible given the amount of incident that Thielemann finds in the score.
With Rainer Honeck, one of the VPO’s concertmasters, giving a vividly characterised and absolutely secure account of the long violin solo, a portrayal of the composer’s wife in all her mood-swings, this is a magnificent and thrilling account of Ein Heldenleben, just the sort of performance – fastidious, individual and totally committed – that finds new life in music easy to feel contemptuous of through familiarity.

 

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