Although perhaps not as known as Herbert von Karajan or Georg Solti for interpretations of Richard Strauss, Andre Previn also specializes in music by the late German Romantic composer. Although his interpretation of "Ein Heldenleben" (A Hero's Life) does not quite play with nuances in quite the same way as Karajan and Solti, Previn conducts a very fine interpretation with dedicated playing from the Vienna Philharmonic and an atmosphere of grandeur befitting this piece. Unfortunately, there are no track cues for the separate sections of Strauss' quasi-autobiographical, but ultimately tongue-in-cheek, tone poem.
As a side note, many people mistaken "Heldenleben" for an ego trip. Actually, it is Strauss' ironic play on the whole idea of artist as hero. (Strauss was into irony and self-parody long before it became popular among my contemporaries.) Although he considered himself as worthy a musical subject as "Napoleon or Alexander the Great," Strauss told his friend Romain Rolland, "I am not a hero. I haven't got the necessary strength; I am not cut out for battle; I prefer to withdraw, to be quiet, to have peace..." (For more, see Michael Kennedy's excellent 1999 biography "Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma.") Perhaps he intended most of "Heldenleben" to be ironic, but the pastoral conclusion may have resonated more deeply with him.
As an appropriate segue, Strauss' "Four Last Songs" (written nearly 50 years after "Heldenleben") follows the pastoral section of Strauss' irony-laced musical autobiography. I have yet to hear an interpretation that matches the spiritual beauty and intensity of theone on this recording. Kurt Masur's interpretation with Jessye Norman's golden voice may be beautiful, but it moves a bit too slowly. Although one would expect much from Karajan, his version with Gundula Janowitz seems to lack the dreamy twilight quality that makes these songs so special. Listening to Previn's interpretation with Arleen Auger as soloist, I feel like I've entered that dreamy twilight world. Never too fast nor too slow, Auger and the Vienna Philharmonic flow quite naturally with the music's "geist" under Previn's lead. This interpretation should put to rest the allegation that Strauss' music lacks a spiritual element. And like any true spiritual experience, words are inadequate to describe the profound beauty of this interpretation of Strauss' final gift to the world.