Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, Op 40; Don Juan, Op 20

Reviewed on Tue 30 Sep, 2014

Rarely has the pertinent and majestic Zarathustra reference at the end of Ein Heldenleben made as telling an effect as it does here on this 1986 Prom performance by the LPO under Bernard Haitink (the sublime solo violinist, the orchestra’s leader at the time, is David Nolan). In fact the whole of the closing ‘retirement’ section marks the highlight of Haitink’s interpretation, a performance that is once both artfully sustained and profoundly moving. Before it, our Hero had worked up a fair old lather in battle, and if Nolan’s depiction of the Hero’s companion at times suggests a relentless nagger rather than a coquettish lover, the effect isn’t entirely inappropriate. The opening has impact, while the performance as a whole is more noble than most. Don Juan was recorded at the Royal Festival Hall in 1992 and opens rather cloudily, though Haitink’s pacing is well judged and the climactic moment later on when the big theme returns on gilded wings is glorious. Anyone expecting high octane Strauss à la Toscanini or Reiner might occasionally find Haitink a little low-key, but the expressive payoffs are plentiful and the playing is for the most part superb.
–Rob Cowan