Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben
Albéric MAGNARD (1865-1914)
Chant funèbre
Op.9 [13:33]
Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus
rec. Nouveau Siècle, Lille, 10 January 2011, 5 November 2014
NAXOS 8.573563 [61:07]

This recording celebrates both the 40th anniversary of the Orchestre National de Lille and the 50th year of the musical career of its founder Jean-Claude Casadesus. Ein Heldenleben is an unusual choice of repertoire for these French musicians to celebrate their anniversaries. As it turns out it is a very happy choice. The coupling takes them back into more familiar territory.

Casadesus gives us a relaxed, humane account of the Strauss. His approach is similar to that of the superb Kempe — still as good as any — and he avoids the hot-house virtuosity and dense orchestral textures that we often get from many a conductor, including Karajan and Solti. The Orchestre National de Lille plays well within itself but that doesn’t imply that there is something lacking. They play with precision and polish and by keeping their dynamics under control, the blazing brass entries are given the opportunity to open up and make an even bigger impact. There’s plenty of power and virtuosity on hand as and when it is required. Casadesus and his orchestra also offer some lovely contrasts of dynamic. All the solos — especially from the woodwind section — are expertly and lovingly played. The transparency in the orchestral textures is a refreshing change in a score that can become thick and bombastic in the wrong hands. The opening Hero section is very impressive, complete with several groans. These emanate from the conductor, I assume. The horn and trombone entries sound magnificent. Incidentally at 29 seconds in we hear the first giveaway that this is a live concert performance. There’s a huge stamp on the podium that takes one for surprise. There’s another one at 3:54. The Hero's Enemies are quite jolly individuals and not in the least bit menacing. The Hero’s Companion features the solo violin of Ferdinand Ianciu and this does sound like a live performance. It’s highly communicative and well played but there are a few minor flaws of ensemble and intonation. The battle scene is more of a skirmish than a war with the percussion kept under control. I enjoy this approach in a section of the score that can sound noisy and hectoring. This fits in well with the rest of the interpretation which is musically understated and tasteful. There is still plenty of emotional excitement to be heard. The final resignation is very moving and brings this fine performance to a spellbinding close.

Following the touching end to Ein Heldenleben, it strikes me that Chant funèbre fits like a glove. Albéric Magnard became a French national hero when he died defending his home at the outbreak of World War I. The Chant funèbre was written in memory of his father. It is a tender funeral march but it is uplifting rather than sombre. The orchestra, with some lovely string tone, plays the piece with great emotion and love.

Both performances were recorded by France’s Radio-Classique and they are from live concerts. The clear recording is unfussy, warm and naturally balanced. The orchestra sounds ravishing and there is little or no spotlighting. Other than the groans and stamps in the Strauss the audience is generally well behaved with just a few clunks, coughs and the like. This is a Heldenleben that gives much pleasure. It’s not a first choice but can be chosen as a fresh sounding alternative for its unfussy, completely musical approach.

John Whitmore
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