As in many of Karajan's recordings from right after Allied authorities in former 3rd Reich territories allowed him to work again, through the fifties and sixties, this Heldenleben is preferable to his later remakes for EMI (analogue), Sony (video) and (again) DG (DDD CD). Taped after a series of Berlin concerts featuring the work given the previous autumn, the recording evidences right from the beginning Karajan's especially tuned ear to, and inner understanding of, Strauss's music. Indeed, Ein Heldenleben features throughout Karajan's career as no other major work by Strauss, the Karajan Centrum website actually presenting 70 performances of the work throughout the conductor's life, from the mid-1930's until the late 1980's.
Karajan was 50 when in late winter 1959 he set to tape this, not only his first recording of the work but also his return to DGG since the war and one of the company's first essays in the then novel art of stereo recording. The performance is first-rate and the berliners, then in the middle of their transitional years from what was still much Furtw'ngler's orchestra to the awesomely virtuosistic instrument Karajan fashioned and stunned the world with, played impeccably for him, in the end presenting a hero at times electrical, others loving, imposingly victorious, pensive or compassionate. Many a critic has hinted at Karajan not only throughly digesting Strauss's work but even kind of mirroring himself in the character the composer portrayed. Perhaps. Karajan's personality was no run-of-the-mill and was by the end of the fifties enjoying as much fame all over the world as perhaps only a Hollywood star or a famous sportsman or world politician could achieve. So, perhaps, he might as well see himself replicated in Strauss's hero, as the composer himself did in his turn, going as he was through a similar peak of achievement and fame in the Germany of his day, some five decades before this recording of one of his best works.
The recording is very good and sounds fresh and lively, in spite of its vintage, with that special sonority given to the Berlin Philharmonic by the Berlin-Dahlem church where DGG used to record them before switching to the Philharmonie a decade or so later. The Siegfrid Idyll, recorded almost 20 years later at the Philharmonie, presents an altogether different sound world, drier and typical not only of Karajan's mannerisms of the time but also of DG's. He seems a different conductor, far more indulgent that in 1959, and as in much of his work of those years apparently far more concerned in how whatever was being played sounded than on what was being actually played, in that kind of quest for sensousness at all costs that to me plagues much of what he did then. I don't mean this is a performance of the Siegfrid Idyll to be played down or discarded, not at all, but there are (again, to me) more satisfying ones in the catalogue and the result is not on a par achievement level as with the Strauss work that preceedes it in the disc. No, the disc represents a must-buy for the Heldenleben performance, which after so many years outshines most versions available and can be considered now a document of prime importance of Karajan at the very peak of his considerable powers.
One final, quite minor, point but perhaps pertinent to this Ein Heldenleben being reissued in DG's "The Originals" series. My copy of the original LP, DGG's 138025 SLPM, shows in the cover not the illustration shown by the CD (and which I do in turn remember from the US open-reel tape made and marketed by Ampex) but a black-and-white mid-body photograph of Herbert von Karajan before a red background. Different covers to tend to different markets? I don't think DG could afford that in the late fifties ...
This CD is a must for anyone who knows Richard Strauss- The tone poem is an epic one in its own right but with thsi kind of playing and sumptuous recording it is amazing- the strings are warm, glowing sweet and also tender and rich- the Wagner is also brilliantly played- music you have to listen to in a darkened room with no distractions- amazing!
I bought this CD for Wagner's Seigfried Idyll and didn't know the Strauss piece. Now I tend to put on the CD to listen to Heldenleben - rather overblown but if you enjoy the romatic heroic style, this is for you.