09 Strauss HeldenlebenRichard Strauss – Ein Heldenleben; Mahler – Rückert Lieder
Sonya Yoncheva; Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Rafael Payare
Pentatone PTC 5187201 (pentatonemusic.com/product/30306)

Rafael Payare’s latest release with the OSM follows up on their highly effective Mahler Fifth Symphony recording with a disc devoted to Richard Strauss’ monumental tone poem depicting the heroic life of none other than his very self. In the course of this lengthy work Strauss mocks his critics, worships his wife, goes to war with his perceived enemies and celebrates his own weighty accomplishments. The scenario is ridiculous on the surface, but the execution is undeniably brilliant, in no small part due to Payare’s keen affinity for the genre. He’s well aware that there’s more to this sporadically bombastic music than the notes and brings to the score an idiomatic and affectionate reading; the orchestra is with him all the way, expertly negotiating the sharp curves on the Strauss autobahn. Concertmaster Andrew Wan contributes an exceptionally multi-dimensional interpretation of the extended solo violin part at the centre of the work, a musical portrait of Strauss’ wife and muse Pauline, whose notorious mood swings and oft-times hectoring tone confirm his perception that “every minute is different from what she was a minute before.” 

The inclusion of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder as filler material is puzzling. Why not more Strauss instead? There are more than 40 orchestral songs to choose from. The Bulgarian diva-du-jour Sonya Yoncheva has made quite a name for herself recently in the operatic world, but her tentative take on Mahler’s introspective and decidedly non-operatic music left me quite unmoved. Payare and the reduced forces of the OSM do their best to not get in the way, but it’s a hopeless cause. Turn instead to the great Mahler singers of the past such as Baker, Ludwig, Ferrier or Fischer-Dieskau if you truly want to savour these songs.

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