Oslo Philharmonic & Vasily Petrenko – Richard Strauss’s Zarathustra & Heldenleben [LAWO Classics]

4 of 5 stars

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Recorded 1-8 November 2016 in Oslo Concert Hall, Norway

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: April 2019
Duration: 80 minutes



A generous coupling, although neither work has individual tracks beyond the respective start-points, but this is seriously good and dynamic music-making, if with reservations.

The opening of Zarathustra (as heisted by Kubrick for 2001) is grandly announced, signalling an expansive account (and also a Strauss series from this source) that is detailed and questing, lyrically spacious in slower music, played sensitively and rapturously, while dramatic episodes enjoy thrill and sweep. If there is a first reservation, it’s the sound-quality (albeit with a very experienced crew in the control room, John Fraser and Arne Akselberg), which suggests the venue as over-reverberant and with a notable (unusual) distance between the front and the back of the stage; and the mightiest tuttis are a trifle congested (yet the Midnight Bell is one hell of a spot-lit clang). Furthermore, the second reservation is that musically this is not the most symphonic of readings, Vasily Petrenko tending to indulge at times, continuous threads not always apparent through a inclination to linger or suddenly accelerate, but there is no doubting the painstaking preparation and the fearless response from the Oslo Phil. This is a spotless production, save for an intrusive ‘bang’ (a door shutting perhaps?) at 12’09”, which surely could have been air-brushed out. ★★★

Following thirty-four minutes of Zarathustra, Heldenleben (a youngish Strauss inventing his life as a Hero, if with many decades of creativity ahead of him) enters with barely a pause! For all that it was recorded at the same run of sessions, the reproduction is more open in fortissimos (if with greater natural resonance noticeable) and needs less amplifier volume.

Petrenko prompts a pulsating opening – fire-in-the-belly stuff, Hero to the rescue – and then conjures a truly viperous collection of Critics, with an intensity that carries into the Hero’s Companion, in which leader Elise Båtnes (already heard in Zarathustra) is quite superb – as feisty, coquettish and compassionate as the real-life Pauline de Ahna (the future Frau Strauss) seems to have been (the composer would know). Quite a passionate entanglement is built here, and if all is fair in Love and War, to Battle with urgency and warring incident and then broadening to a summit-reaching victory (Alpine Symphony in due course though). Following which, reminiscences (self-quotations, a mosaic of famous Strauss) and the sunset of retirement are handled with discretion and poignancy. Unlike his Zarathustra, Petrenko’s Heldenleben unfolds in one glorious arc. ★★★★★

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