Strauss: Ein Heldenleben; Webern: Im Sommerwind. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. CSO Resound. $18.99.
Ivan Chambers: The Old Burying Ground. Tim Eriksen, folksinger; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Anna-Carolyn Bird, soprano; University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. Dorian Sono Luminus. $16.99.
Richard Strauss was unapologetic about putting his private life on display to the world in Ein Heldenleben, proudly proclaiming himself as being just as worthy of extended symphonic treatment as, say, Napoleon (the original subject of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony in E-flat, the key in which Strauss deliberately cast his “hero’s life” of himself). Of course, the life Strauss chose to show is unashamedly larger than life, from the four-minute “striding forth” at the opening through the quotations from earlier Strauss works near the end, which show the composer overcoming his carping critics (who are portrayed in some mighty astringent music). The Chicago Symphony gave the U.S. première of Ein Heldenleben in 1900, giving the orchestra a 110-year performance history of the work. Between that and the skill of conductor Bernard Haitink, it is reasonable to expect a smashingly good Ein Heldenleben in this new recording (assembled from several live performances in 2008). But Haitink’s rendition is a bit of a disappointment. Individual elements are outstanding, including the violin solos by concertmaster Robert Chen and many of the brass passages. The strings play with precision but without the warmth and depth that Strauss needs for maximum effect, and the winds never really seem to snarl in their portrayal of the hero’s enemies – and since this orchestra’s winds are quite capable of producing any sort of tone or emotion, it must be the conductor’s decision to downplay some of the (admittedly overdone) Strauss emotionalism. Still, Ein Heldenleben is such over-the-top music that it demands an over-the-top performance to attain its full effect, and Haitink is just a little too emotionally controlled (the love music never soars) and perhaps a touch too clinical to produce the sort of full-throated roar that can make this overblown piece seem almost as significant as Strauss himself thought it was. Ein Heldenleben is interestingly paired with Anton Webern’s Im Sommerwind, his most Straussian work and a very early one (dating to before his Op. 1). Im Sommerwind shows Webern at his most Germanic/Romantic: it is a tone poem that closely tracks a poetic ode to nature by novelist-philosopher Bruno Wille, and is idyllic as can be. It is possible to find a few – a very few – slight hints of later Webern here, but it is not very useful to do so. Im Sommerwind stands on its own as a tone poem in the Straussian tradition, pleasant enough in sound and certainly showing skill in instrumentation and comparative emotional restraint. It is well-made if not very distinguished music.
The Old Burying Ground is on the same time scale as Ein Heldenleben, but this work by Evan Chambers (born 1963) is personal in a very different way. Chambers, chair of composition at the University of Michigan School of Music, plays the traditional Irish fiddle and has always been strongly attracted to folk music – its influence pervades his work. The Old Burying Ground is a meditative, exploratory, sometimes simplistic, sometimes complex, multifaceted exploration of life and death and, ultimately, peacefulness. Inspired, Chambers says, by a walk through a New Hampshire cemetery, The Old Burying Ground includes epitaphs from that cemetery and another plus poetry written by five moderns: Jane Hirshfield, Thomas Lynch, Paula Meehan, Keith Taylor and Richard Tillinghast. Stylistically, Chambers’ work wanders through both folk and classical techniques and sounds, as the expected graveyard-focused themes (“And Pass from Hence Away,” “Oh Drop on My Grave,” “Relentless Death”) mix with meditations on the passage of time and life (“This Transitory Scene,” “Pompeii,” the concluding “Paths of Peace”). As a whole, this nearly hour-long work emerges as a very personal statement by Chambers about life and death, restlessness and peace, and the inevitable passage of time – with the disparate views and approaches of the poets being brought together, at least to an extent, by the fact that Chambers produces the music for all their words. Yet Chambers’ music itself is not of a single consistent style, and although it is more accessible than much music being written today, it sometimes seems to be pulled uneasily between straightforward folklike elements and the greater complexity of ones cast in more of a traditional classical-music mode. The Old Burying Ground also seems to go on somewhat too long: it is, after all, a single-focus work, and even though the poets express themselves differently, they are ultimately all writing about death and its meaning – so the work seems a bit “much of a muchness.” Nevertheless, it is interesting and well constructed, and the performance is quite fine both vocally (with Tim Eriksen a standout) and instrumentally. This is not the sort of work to which listeners are likely to return time and again, but many will find it worth hearing once, and perhaps more than once.