The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (250): Terrible music, brilliantly conducted

The Slipped Disc daily comfort zone (250): Terrible music, brilliantly conducted


norman lebrecht

December 02, 2020

Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is tacky in every way, a blob of sensationalist Nietzschean philosophy bound together with orchestral virtuosity and no nutritional substance. Until Carlos Kleiber conducted it.

Bloody brilliant.



  • christopher storey says:

    Err,,, I think it is stretching it a bit to suggest this has its roots in Nietszche: Also Sprach Zarathustra certainly is derived from Nietszche, but Heldenleben is a rather more conceited autobiographical essay , even if some commentators such as Gillam have suggested a connection with Nietszche, albeit without much evidence to support the point other than a few random quotations from Zarathustra

    • John Borstlap says:

      No, in that period intellectuals and artists were saturated with Nietzschian thought, they all had read ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ with red ears and caught more than a touch of megalomania, not only Strauss but also Mahler. God had suddenly died and now man could overcome himself with heavy brass, that is: till 1914. Strauss clearly identified with the Nietzschian mindset.

      And Strauss’ Heldenleben is a ridiculous piece, and no performance however brilliant can save it because it’s in the notes. It’s petty bourgeoisie blown-up to a Nietzschian caricature and it sounds as a spoof.

  • Evan Tucker says:

    It’s still a tacky blob….

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is tacky in every way, a blob of sensationalist Nietschean philosophy bound together with orchestral virtuosity and no nutritional substance. Until Carlos Kleiber conducted it.”
    This statement is absolutely true, although I would substitute the words “Even after” for “Until”.
    Kleiber’s performance here, though, is quite good, although no performance has ever come close to Mengelberg’s with the New York Phil. Even after all these years, it is simply stunning.

  • Herbie G says:

    I must have defective hearing or bad taste then. I like luxuriating in Strauss’ opulent orchestral music – indeed, in his music in general. In any case, Carlos Kleiber is a Midas among conductors who could make whatever he touched into a masterpiece.

  • John Kelly says:

    Kleiber’s performance is wonderful of course, though the violin solo lets the side down a bit. But so many other conductors do it and did it very well also. Among them Karajan, Bohm, Jansons, Rattle and Honeck. Tacky and egomaniacally autobiographical it may be, but it’s very much in the same vein as the Alpine Symphony and the Domestic Symphony – an extraordinary orchestral showpiece, which many conductors seem to want to program. There are a good many poorer works regularly visited upon audiences and I am certain there are many SD contributors who could come up with a list………….

    • Herbie v K says:

      About the tone poem called Eine Alpensinfonie, I trust everyone has seen my Berlin concert from November 20, 1983, on Sony DVD. I’m at my searing, soaring best.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    Terrible music??? That says more about you than the music, doesn’t it?

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Reportedly Sony was planning to release this and Carlos Kleiber objected. Talk about the best being the enemy of the good. Or, maybe, boundless imagination being the enemy of brilliant realization.

    • John Borstlap says:

      My fly on the wall informs me that the reason of K’s objection was a wrong note in one of the violas at nr 13 of the score.

  • PHF says:

    Seriously? Who is Richard Strauss if we have the great NL.

  • M2N2K says:

    Not just Carlos Kleiber but virtually all of the most distinguished conductors of the last 90 years or so have performed this piece and continue to do so, which is enough of an endorsement for me to say that it is not “terrible” at all but a truly fine music indeed.

    • John Borstlap says:

      These Strauss pieces are brilliant imitations of great music, like the Domestic Symphony, the Zarathustra tone poem and the Alptraum thing. One can enjoy them for what they are without danger to one’s taste but there is so much better music, also by Strauss. Conductors like them for what they offer the conductor for his vanity to shine, like overdressed glamorous women accompanying men on parties but who are completely empty inside.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Nobody got it right before Kleiber? What about Fritz Reiner with the Pittsburgh Symphony on Columbia with the great Hugo Kolberg playing the violin solos? Or Artur Rodzinski with the Cleveland Orchestra and no less than Josef Fuchs (!) as the violin soloist?

    • NYMike says:

      And Ormandy/Philly with Krachmalnick, Brusilow and Carol during mono and stereo LP era. Reiner/Chicago with Harth?

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Carlos Kleiber met Richard Strauss when Kleiber was about 17. What an honour!!

    • Curios says:

      Could you expand on that? Haven’t read it anywhere else before. Was it in Buenos Aires?

      • John Borstlap says:

        No, it was in a public toilet on the railway station in Zürich.

        • Olassus says:

          Another one of your homophobic comments? Too bad, John, that your fine mature mind is still bent in this way.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Who is homophobic here? It was when the two were washing their hands and got into a lively discussion of the recapitulation section of TIll Eulenspiegel Strauss had just conducted.

  • I have an odd Ein Heldenleben memory. My wife played in the Munich Philharmonic from 1980 to 1993, which was known as the “Orchestra of the Fascist Movement” during the Third Reich. (“Orchester der Hauptstadt der Bewegung.”) It stamped all of its music with those words circumscribing a eagle holding a swastika in its talons. After the war, the orchestra blotted out the words, but left the swastikas. It was especially ironic to see the swastikas on the parts for Ein Heldenleben.

    In 1991, I wrote to the cultural ministry and asked them to remove the swastikas. The orchestra responded that there weren’t any on the music, so I sent photo copies to the cultural ministry and members of the city council. After that, I got a letter saying they would be removed. My wife left the orchestra for a professorship not long afterwards. I don’t know if the swastikas were ever actually removed.

    When all of this was happening, one of my wife’s colleagues said, “They’re just little swastikas.” Perhaps this could be a motto for the AfD.

  • Too bad that Kleiber never directed the Concertgebouw (maybe more the reference for Richard Strauss than the Winer) for Richard Strauss he did it only that for Beethoven. Too bad also that we don’t have video of him with Richard Strauss I’am not sure that he was at his best with him

  • Gustavo says:

    These words sound very much like “Des Helden Widersacher” at the time of the premier when music critics were constantly cursing, hissing and rumbling in response to new music that had “no nutritional substance” to nourish their simple bucolic minds.

  • Heifetz63 says:

    Deutsche Grammophon recording not approved by CK. What a pity.

  • RW2013 says:

    Give me one phrase of this “Nietschean” (sic) blob for the complete oeuvre of the most overrated conductor any day.

  • Jonas Michaeli says:

    As usual Mr L. your broad brush comment is superfluous. There is no “good” or “bad” music. It is all in the ear of the listener. I love all of Richard Strauss,s music because of the way he paints a picture for me in a particular style that I love. You may as well say Mozart is boring or tacky. It isn’t, it’s just a genre that many people love. So with Strauss. Oh, and I know you hate Karajan, but he is up there with Kleiber when it comes to the best interpretations of R Strauss.

  • Caractacus says:

    Nietschean philosophy – are possibly confusing Heldenleben with Zarathustra? Which ever, I personally like/love both pieces. Never mind all the philosophy or the self-portrait – just wonderful, huge late-romantic works with extravagant orchestration.

  • Flamme says:

    WTF is this blog?!

    “Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben is tacky in every way, a blob of sensationalist Nietschean philosophy bound together with orchestral virtuosity and no nutritional substance.”

    Never seen such a stupidity expressed in such a pretentious way.

  • Bone says:

    Very enjoyable performance and certainly ranks among the finest recordings I’ve heard of this work. I agree the underlying sentiments and even orchestration are on the bloviated side, but hearing all the myriad opportunities for detail being realized in the recording reminds me how much fun it is to be a performer working with an imaginative conductor.
    One question: is it just me, or are these the most recessed VPO strings in recorded history? I do enjoy hearing the winds clearly, but I miss the lush sheen of the string section I expected to hear.
    Kudos to the horns – they obviously love playing for CK!

  • Novagerio says:

    NL, despite your aversion to Karajan, give his 1959 recording (the first DGG recording with Karajan and the BPO together) a hearing.
    Ein Heldenleben is by the way as harmless as Strauss’ later alpine journey. Or his previous tonal impressions on Zarathustra. Just remember, C Major (representing the key of “nature”) vs B Major (representing “human passions”) has all to do with music, not philosophy.
    It’s only a set of tonal impressions based on Nietzsche’s mighty poem.
    Ein Heldenleben is only Strauss’ contribution to the “Heroic key” of E-flat Major (The “Eroica-key”). Yes, the younger Strauss had a remarkable frivolity and self-indulgence towards his own virtuosity, but that’s not a crime.

    On a personal note, Karajan and Carlos Kleiber represent the Apollonian vs the Dionysian in conducting. And I keep gladly both.

    • “Ein Heldenleben is only Strauss’ contribution to the “Heroic key” of E-flat Major (The “Eroica-key”)”; not quite – there is the relatively early sonata for violin and piano…

      • Novagerio says:

        Alistair: Heldenleben is a self-congratulatory “heroic” piece – tongue-in-cheek. The Violin Sonata is not.

      • Olassus says:

        … and both horn concertos, and the Serenade for Wind Instruments. Remember his background!

      • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

        “Im Abendrot” is also in Eb Major. I honestly feel this is not mere coincidence. And if this supreme example of orchestral art song is not a “contribution” let’s wrap up this discussion. Music, as we know it, would now be pointless…

  • Greg says:

    Whether you like Heldenleben or not, there is no denying this is a first rate performance. Pity the trombones are virtually nonexistent and don’t match the presence of the trumpets, but everything else sounds quite fine. CK achieves a great balance of detail and overall picture. Does anyone know what his specific objections were to releasing this?

  • Pedro says:

    Very good but Karajan was better. Go to the Testament CD of the concert of 28.04.85 at the RFH. I was there and will never forget it.

    • Pedro says:

      I was lucky with most of my live performances of Heldenleben. Maazel (twice), Karajan (three times, the top in London, Salzburg and Vienna), Barenboim (twice) and Haitink (once). Two disappointing ones from Solti and Janssons. Look forward for Thielemann and Dresden at the Concertgebouw next June. I hope that the Covid will let them travel by then.

  • Stephen Gould says:

    Say what you will, but there are many “better” works I enjoy less.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    I once read a review of Heldenleben that claimed it was fascist because Herbert Von Karajan was wearing a leather jacket on the album sleeve. . . .
    I didn’t care much for the music until I heard Riccardo Chailly conduct it with the Gewandhaus. Since then I haven’t been able to get enough of it.

  • Rikkitavi889 says:

    Heldenleben has nothing to do with Nietzsche except insofar as ASZ is quoted in it. But so is Don Juan. How anyone can think Heldenleben is “tacky” is beyond me. Arrogant, egocentric maybe; but “tacky” never.

    • Novagerio says:

      What is this mania of bringing Nieltzsche into this discussion about Heldenleben? Cos Strauss inflates himself into a kind of “Übermensch”?
      It’s a tongue-in-cheek virtuoso piece (and very effective, when performed with panache!) about his own personal “heroics”, and with a particularly mocking section directed at the “critics” and the “Besserwissern” (!)

  • “Terrible music”? If ever I somehow manage to write music half as terrible as that (though of course in no sense “like” it) I will have cause to be quite pleased with myself!

  • Edgar Self says:

    For Strauss symphonic poems, the rule that works for me is, the shorter, the better. I like Til Eulenspiegel, Don Juan, and especially Death and Transfiguration far more than Heldenleben, Domestic Symphony, Don Quixote, Zarathuatra, and even Alpine Symphony, which appeals to the amateur mountaineer in me but faintly disappoints, like some summit views They start well but then go on for hours.

    I have the same trouble with Liszt’s pioneer works except Les Preludes; and the Straussian Bantock’s Fifine at the Fair and Bax’s Ttintagel.

    Two other short Strauss poems are in his operas: the love music from Feuersnot,a Beecham speciality like Fifine, and Salome’s Dance that Rodzinski and Karajan did so well.

    The miracle is that the late Strauss regained concision and exquisite instrumental transparency to make so perfect an end as the Four Last Songs.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Agreed, especially with the last line. These songs are the climax of his artistic career, just before he left.

  • Tamino says:

    It‘s not worse than most of the Mahler Symphonies, if you are able to assess such things without ideological blindness.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But Mahler symphonies are very diverse and some of them have sublime movements, far beyond what Strauss possibly could imagine.

  • PiccoloPete says:

    Good music or not, the work is a favourite of mine (as is the Alpine Symphony). It was the piece used to demonstrate hifi equipment to my father and I when we auditioned our first system.

    Haitink’s Concertgebouw recording from 1970 is as fine as any. A live performance in Amsterdam conducted by François-Xavier Roth last year was stunning.

    For sheer tension, it would hard to match the BRSO under Jansons at the Proms a few years back when the lighting failed during the battle sequence. We all held our breath waiting for the orchestra to fall apart as the orchestra ws plunged into darkness and spotlights swivelled randomly around the hall. When watching the TV broadcast later, so clever was the editing you would never have known anything had gone awry (maybe they used Dress rehearsal footage).

    • John Borstlap says:

      The first scene of Alpine Symphony is the best, after that the level sinks to an unbearable level. The same with ASZ: brilliant beginning and the rest is a smelling pit. Strauss is often at his best when he begins, and as often he does not quite know how to proceed, because he did not have the long-term overview matching the real length of his pieces. That is why his operas, even the best ones, are written as a string of short episodes – but there, it does not hinder because in opera the plot is mostly a string of short situations.

  • Doiv says:

    I’d have to mention the live performance of Heldenleben by Mariss Jansons and the BRSO. What a horn section – perfect! Sorry folks, even better than Kleiber… and that is usually very hard to say.

  • Doiv says:

    Forgot to add the URL for the Jansons performance
    best horn bit is around 28 mins into it!

  • pjl says:

    one other performance that nearly redeemed the piece was in a concert I attended in 1975: Kurt Sanderling requested it for his (belated) Manchester debut with the BBC Northern; there was also a Gliuck overtre (!) and Beethoven 3rd with Michael Roll. It is on cd.

  • M2N2K says:

    My ears hear plenty of significant musical content inside of the notes of Ein Heldenleben. It is certainly not among the most “profound” musical utterances to be sure, but it is nevertheless fairly substantial and brilliantly realized. Arguing about likes and dislikes in music and other arts is usually rather pointless, but I do admit to being quite pleased that virtually all of the most distinguished conductors of the last nine decades have been and continue to be performing it repeatedly throughout their musical careers: that to me is a far more convincing argument about the quality of the piece than any of the insulting dismissals presented here by the host and a few of the commenters.

  • Amos says:

    For what it is worth, despite being a Strauss protege and performing most of his music throughout his career, George Szell agreed with your assessment of Heldenlaben. Szell performed it once in his 24 years in Cleveland and supposedly only as a favor to concertmaster Gingold who wanted to perform the solos.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Just an opinion, but I think both Kempe and Beecham made “Heldenleben” sound like a good piece of music.

  • anonymus says:

    I usually like what Lebrecht does, but this one is just out of the park. The point about Heldenleben is that it is supposed to be self-indulgent, it’s a very nuanced satire and critique of Romanticism. Go see Kenneth Woods’s blog post no less (Link here: Just as Mahler is deliberately using harsh sounds for his purposes, Strauss also deliberately goes over the top in his orchestral sound. (Small sidenote: I love Mahler more than Strauss, but I do like some Strauss). I don’t have any problem with Lebrecht hating it, I have a problem with him presenting his opinion as fact. The supposed “sanctification” of Mahler (with which I partially identify) doesn’t mean we need to hate on Strauss.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Irony in music is a tricky thing. Mostly it does not work because for irony to work, a context is needed which is outside the realm of music.

    • Edward Cumming says:

      a big part of the problem is Strauss’s frequent jibe at his music theory teachers (25:57 and 29:49) with those god-awful perfect fifths. One time is bad enough, but the second time always makes me cringe. Otherwise, love this piece as much as the next guy.

  • Robert Houlihan says:

    Hello score readers ,anybody notice mistake in Piccolo 5 bars after figure 41(Kalmus)? Imagine Kleiber’s face there!

  • Edgar Self says:

    Strauss wrote an early short syphonic poem “Macbeth”, unmemorable the last time I heard it. Any comments?

    It struck me as as an orphan, like Tchaikovsky’s Tempest or Francesca compared to the more interesting Hamlet and Manfred.

  • George Ewart says:

    Actually Strauss describes the critics most admirably herein in Heldenleben.
    I played under Kleiber in ‘Elektra’ at Covent Garden in 1977. Wonderful conductor and human being.

  • Edward Cumming says:

    Before Mariss Jansons went on stage with the Pittsburgh Symphony to perform Ein Heldenleben at the Salsburg Festival, he was pacing in his dressing room, as he often was before a performance, but one of this magnitude really had him buzzing. He said to me, “I am so nervous . . . but as conductors, we must never let the players know that!” Then, with the PSO, he proceeded to give the performance of his life. (As an aside, just before the acoustic rehearsal, some of the players asked me, “What’s up with Mariss? Why is he so nervous?”)