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

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