STRAUSS Also sprach Zarathustra. Ein Heldenleben (Petrenko)
These two new releases see two conductors tackle Ein Heldenleben at different stages of their relationships with orchestras. Vasily Petrenko’s comes some six years into his tenure with the Oslo Philharmonic (his current contract runs until next season) and follows well-received Scriabin and Prokofiev with them (also on LAWO). On Linn, Thomas Søndergård is kicking off a Strauss series with his new band, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
The Petrenko release exudes confidence and swagger, while with Søndergård we have something altogether more measured. There’s focus and tautness to the Dane’s approach; and, though there’s no shortage of incisiveness and character to the wind, his brass can seem well-behaved. The result is a Heldenleben that is more in its element in the intimate passages: ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’ is especially fine, and distinguished by some outstanding solo playing.
Maya Iwabuchi brings quiet, considered virtuosity to ‘The Hero’s Companion’ and contributes (along with the fine principal horn) to an account of the work’s final moments that is especially touching. Similar virtues are in evidence in the Rosenkavalier Suite. It’s not perhaps as rollicking or fun as some but the quieter moments are again beautifully done: there’s a lovely tenderness in the Presentation of the Rose and the initial appearance of the waltz lilts and swings seductively. Both scores are captured in detailed sound by Linn’s engineers.
To turn to Petrenko, though, is to turn to a conductor who seems more at ease with this music – and an orchestra that, during his reign, has been honed to the very highest level. The more generous coupling is a performance of Also sprach Zarathustra to rival the best. It begins excitingly and expansively, and you notice straight away, as Petrenko observes the slight ebb and swell of Strauss’s dynamics on the final big C major of the Sunrise, that the conductor is taking nothing for granted.
There’s no lack of excitement or, where needed, bombast, and the Osloers’ sound at full throttle is thrilling, their playing superb. But what makes this account so special is that it also has room for patient musicality – listen to the soulfulness of ‘Von den Hinterweltlern’ or the affection in the unrushed ‘Tanzlied’, the tricky run up to it brilliantly executed. It’s a performance that’s full of detail and loving touches to make you smile, while it also offers a sense of coherence to leave you deeply satisfied. Andris Nelsons’s highly praised Birmingham account (over two minutes shorter) suddenly feels a touch scrabbly and episodic in comparison.
Petrenko’s Heldenleben starts swiftly: the introduction chugs along faster than usual with, as with the RSNO, more clarity than sheer heft to the sound. But here’s an account that is every bit as impressive as the Also sprach, distinguished straight away by what must be one of the most pointed, characterful and witty personifications of ‘The Hero’s Companion’ on disc, courtesy of concertmaster Elise Båtnes, who intervenes as matters start to get particularly heated with this vivid group of adversaries.
Båtnes takes the lead, too, in an unusually ardent love scene, and it’s a pleasure to be able to count on Petrenko to hit the spot with timing and dynamics reliably throughout the battle and the triumphant glow that follows – all performed with a real sense of joy and exhilaration. It’s another performance (beautifully recorded too) to make you smile, and it crowns an outstanding release.