Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 [7 Tracks]

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Say what you want about the egomaniacal Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, he was far and away the best postwar interpreter of German composer Richard Strauss' megalomaniacal Ein Heldenleben. In this 1959 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Karajan approaches the work as a portrait painted in sound of the artist as a young world conqueror. Though Karajan draws playing of tremendous fire and daring out of the Berlin musicians and though Deutsche Grammophon captures the performance in immediate stereo sound, the real hero of this Hero's Life is Karajan himself. He has the measure of the score, knows when to apply pressure and when to pull back, when to let the brass go and when to reign them in, when to let the harmonies bloom and when to cut them off. But more importantly, Karajan believes in the music. Other postwar conductors could give convincing performances of Ein Heldenleben -- one thinks, of course, of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's high-powered 1954 RCA recording -- but Karajan isn't performing the work: he's living it. The sweep and swagger of the opening theme, the imperious power of the battle music, the expansive monumentality of the closing pages: this isn't an act for Karajan; this is life itself. In his 1972 recording of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Karajan's approach is less intuitive and more intellectual, and the result, while a first-class performance of the virtuoso score, is less compelling. Still, anyone who loves either Ein Heldenleben or Der Helden Karajan who doesn't already know this recording is urged to check it out.

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