What d’ya know. Put Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic and Richard Strauss’s gargantuan tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), together and at times it sounds like Elgar! Not a bad thing nor surprising since Elgar commanded a similar sense of structural control and orchestral color that you can hear in his Enigma Variations (whose 1899 premiere, in London, was conducted by Hans Richter, a great admirer of Elgar), not to mention the riotous energy and sweeping romantic vision of his fabulous Overture In the South—a brilliant English take on the Straussian ethos.
With his orchestra’s sumptuous sound and playing (recorded in the Philharmonie Hall in Berlin), Rattle takes a rich but restrained view of the proceedings, letting the supreme young instrumentalists of the Berlin Philharmonic speak for themselves. The result is less bombastic than usual, even idiosyncratically English pastoral at times, although the battle sequence is hair-raising in its studied intensity, the soundstage is huge and the dynamic range awesome. Musically, depending on your view of Heldenleben, this will either be a deeply satisfying alternative view or a serious miscalculation.
The Bourgeois Gentilhomme, one of the composer’s happiest pastiches, is a fabulous testing ground for both musical and technical achievement. The nine movements, lasting about 35 minutes, run the gamut from simulated Couperin and Lully to Strauss miniatures; there is a death-defying solo for the violin that recalls Zarathustra and a sublime cello solo that recalls Don Quixote. Again, the playing is oddly laid-back at times, but the instrumental detail is fabulous with only a hint of inappropriate spotlighting, the timbres are captured with exquisite beauty, and the sonic lower depths, whether it be double basses or bassoons, are entirely natural. If you can find Sir Neville Marriner’s deleted Philips recording with his Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, you will find a more characterful, more sonically aggressive and self-consciously audiophile performance, but there has never been a recording of Bourgeois as purely beautiful as this new one.
– Laurence Vittes