Review: Works by Richard Strauss - Anna Netrebko, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim. DG Download

Ein Heldenleben and Vier Letzte Lieder

All in all, this release is a disappointment: there is some beautiful singing and playing but .

Barenboim can be a quixotic conductor at the best of times but here there's something uncomfortable about the readings, and it's not helped by the recording which is unnatural and unstable.  I think he wants to make it work but his natural temperament doesn't allow it somehow: too often in slow music he's sentimental.  To be fair, his reputation does not feature Richard Strauss writ large in either concert hall or opera house.  And in both orchestra and soloist he has fine musicians at his disposal - but something is amiss here..

The charge sheet begins with a distinctly odd start - the start of the first chord sounds faded in. Within the ten few bars we have the conductors vocalisations - not unique of course but particularly distracting at a point where the orchestra should be on relatively solid ground.  One has to ask why they are necessary - they are obvious throughout many of the louder passages.

Once wonders how much rehearsal there was, there are times when there's a lessening of pace or power which suggests undercertainty.  For example, the orchestra goes slack before the horns come in at fig 10 and the low snarling chords from the brass (four after fig 12 onwards) have rarely sounded so tame and so this section ends weakly.  Maybe that's intentional, Barenboim looking to portray a weak hero perhaps?  It doesn't really wash.  The critics section is well enough played but without some piquancy or character it feels neither tone poem or psychodrama.  And through the recording I longed to hear the dulcet tones of Thomas Keller's tuba which shone through the orchestra's Ring Cycle at the 2012 Proms - it was clouded over.  The orchestra interludes in the critics section are slow and suitably lugubrious.  Here at least Barenboim and his orchestra are in fine sound - but there's a tendency to wallow in the warm bath of Strauss' orchestration.

The orchestral interjections start too loud in the third section. The Hero's companion is depicted on the concert masters violin and the score is peppered with musical instructions and clear indications of the mood.  And good as Wolfram Brendl is, he is nowhere near as characterful as his illustrious predecessors in Berlin. Though it is colourful and considered: when called on to be 'merry' - it ain't and 'very sharp' it hardly changes at all. The softer side of Frau Strauss are also portrayed in slow- motion: that doesn't help. Barenboim's "ooph" accompanying the ff pizz. four bars after 30 is particularly unwelcome and should have been edited out.  There's some lovely harp and wind playing projected by the sound picture but at the expense of other sections so this orchestra's great brass section are mushy.  The Love Idyll is slow though with some obtrusive pulling back by the conductor and odd spotlighting from the team of engineers.  Spotlighting was a problem in Dudamel's Strauss live concert recording with the Berlin Phil too. But it's hardly passionate - it's barely heavy petting.

In the next section, the off-stage trumpet fanfares get dubious response from the orchestra and the Battle scene sets off with horns very forward in the sound picture all of a sudden. The side drum brings along a fast tempo that Barenboim almost immediately cuts back after the first return to the slower romance music - so one wonders where he's heading and what will be his speed through this tumult.  The brass duck and dive out of the sound picture, the woodwind too but they are mostly underpowered for this music.  The whole idea of a chaotic battle is undermined.  The conclusion and repeated love, victory and hero themes are plain.  And we move to the Deeds of Peace the lumps become less noticeable and there's some sweet playing.  Barenboim's mannered easing up at the 'Guntram' quote may be the artefact of a live recording but towards the end Barenboim manages neither to highlight the quotes or keep the music going - it's a bit of chaos he could have used in the War Section!

For the first time the reading bites at the beginning of the Hero's retreat/retirement - it's hard to see why some of this fluency was in evidence early.  The recording settles down for a moment and then oddly the horns are too forward and as the strings increase in volume they rush forward in the sound picture (as though by some sort of magic!) and by fig 107 the horns have moved back a bit.  The epilogue - one of the best Strauss wrote - is not really satisfactory.  The horn and violin seemingly in different rooms for all their interaction, the orchestra reticent and the mood routine.  The final chord does not fade as Strauss instructs from pianissimo sadly.  There's no applause from the audience: they are silent throughout.

I really couldn't recommend this on any count - it's a poor offering for the Strauss2014

The Four Last Songs are from the same live concert(s?) in August 2014.  Netrebko has a fine instrument and it's dramatic power and range are well known and hugely appreciated. There's occasionally a bit of a problem in the lower registers. The microphones are too close to Netrebko too sometimes they catch too much breath and not enough voice.  The balance problems are much less distracting and I only heard Barenboim once!

All of these songs are challenging and I've never heard them completely successfully realised in concert - in fact in the case of Anne Schwanewilms at the Proms I didn't hear them at all.

The first song, Frühling, is a bit rough or at least hard edged, there's a little bit of instability between ensemble and soloist: she seems to be feeling around for the right level of engagement. There's scarcely a word audible in the glare of the recording.

All seems to be improved for the second song, September, Barenboim seems more comfortable.  It's a lovely performance - though the solo violin strings seems to stand out momentarily, indistinct at others.  The third song Beim Schlafengehen is sung more like Mahler than Strauss at first, it needs a more intimate feel - Barenboim certainly let's the orchestra create that even if the engineers don't put much space around the soloists in the orchestra or around Netrebko so it sounds declamatory. The great climbing heights are very fine and wonderfully realised towards the end.

The final song, Im Abendrot, is by far the best - though Barenboim drags out the lovely bits.  Netrebko has the measure of it and the delicacy required.  Its not perfect but much better than many recent attempts and full bodied and hugely affecting.


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