Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben
David Nice salutes Paavo Järvi’s Strauss album with his new orchestra
It looks as though many of us in the west have underestimated the top-league nature of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo. Of the generalisations trotted out about Japanese playing, those about finetuning and focus turn out to be absolutely true; the one about lack of emotion completely false. This orchestra’s recent performance of Mahler Symphony No. 6 at London’s Royal Festival Hall was the ultimate mix of passion and precision, while on this recording the elements combine to give us supremely vivid Strauss, guided by the surest of conducting hands, the Estonian Paavo Järvi’s.
This is their first recording together, and everything you need to know is here in the first few minutes of Strauss’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan: a George Szell-like cut and thrust in the opening swagger, a gorgeous dissolve in a mist of harpspangled cushioning for the first love-scene; the NHK Symphony Orchestra does both bright sunlight and chiaroscuro to perfection. Järvi doesn’t linger over the great horn theme, Herbert von Karajan-style, but it makes its mark all the same, supremely so on the climactic return.
The pairing may be obvious but it doesn’t happen too often: the protagonist of Ein Heldenleben is a comfier kind of lover, the composer himself, subject to mock-epic excess, and self-quoting both the horn melody at a climactic point and the tender oboe solo of Juan’s second, and deepest, love. This is exactly the sort of Hero’s Life I want to hear, moving with the long-line electricity that’s only possible in a live recording (or a single studio take). Again,
Szell’s agility springs to mind, but with the spectacular sound going beyond what could be called upon in the 1960s. It gives a depth that lets
This is exactly the sort of Hero’s Life I want to hear, with spectacular sound
us hear the lowest of harp and horn notes, a clarity to textures even in the wildness of the 3/4 battle sequence and an extra body to climaxes that go beyond even what the build-ups lead one to expect.
Leader Fuminori Maro Shinozaki gives us absolutely the most subtle, exquisitely intoned portrayal of ‘the Hero’s Companion’ I’ve ever heard. And the best is last – a tapestry of personal quotations in the ‘Works of Peace’ that’s lovelier and clearer than any I know, followed by the noblest of farewells, on which Shinozaki shines a tender light.
This performance has no superiors – impressive when you think of rival claims from Rudolf Kempe, Bernard Haitink, Karajan and others.
The Järvi family could corner the Strauss market: Neeme’s Symphonia Domestica on Chandos, my Building a Library choice on BBC Radio 3 many years ago, is now equalled by that from younger son Kristjan (on Naïve), and Paavo’s series – may it be all the symphonic poems – can only go from strength to strength. Amazing work.
Ein Heldenleben; Don Juan Fuminori Maro Shinozaki (solo violin); NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo/ Paavo Järvi
RCA 88985391762 61:29 mins
‘the surest of hands’: praise for the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi