Nathalie Stutzmann’s Impressive Conducting Debut with the LPO

26/03/2017

R.Strauss, Mozart: Kateryna Kasper (soprano); Sara Mingardo (contralto); Robin Tritschler (tenor); Leon Košavič (baritone); London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Nathalie Stutzmann (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.3.2017. (CC)

R.Strauss – Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24

Mozart – Requiem, K626 (completed Süssmayr)

It was fascinating to see Natalie Stutzmann, far better known of course as a contralto, in the role of conductor. This was in fact Stutzmann’s conducting debut with the London Philharmonic; recently, she also debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She is active in the opera house as well as the concert platform, having conducted both L’elisir d’amore (2014) and Tannhäuser (just last month) at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.

Stutzmann’s conducting technique is exceptionally clear, and everything she touches emerges as incredibly musical. The current concert was one of the year-long festival, “Belief and Beyond Belief.” Events of the last week in London of course forced mortality into the public view, and Stutzmann acknowledged this in a brief spoken introduction, dedicating the evening’s performances to those who passed. As she put it, “may their souls find solace and appeasement”.

No better beginning, then, than Richard Strauss’s typically graphic description of death and the journey to the afterlife in his Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”). Stutzmann had clearly worked hard on dynamic range with the orchestra, from the near audibility of the opening to the crushing climaxes, raw in sound and emotion. The LPO’s soloists were uniformly excellent; leader Pieter Schoemann’s solo contributions were given with a tone that had just the right amount of edge. All of the tempo changes were managed perfectly, with no sense of hangover from the previous tempo. Details like hard-edged timpani underscoring fateful brass, but using soft sticks for the hero’s heartbeat, all contributed to the impression that this was a most considered interpretation. The post-mortem section, full of radiance and hope, was beautifully done, the end a perfect combination of discipline and glow. Placing the double-basses, not behind the cellos as normal, but rather allying them with the low brass, added to the sound’s richness.

Taken together, the Strauss and the Mozart Requiem make for a relatively short concert, but one that packed huge emotional punch; given the sheer size of the choir used, there was a certain inevitability about the visceral element of the Mozart. Stutzmann plumped for the familiar Süssmayr completion, but there was no hint of the routine from the forces at hand, in particular the London Philharmonic Choir. Perhaps some of that came from Stutzmann’s tempi, which tended towards the rapid side. The trombone lines in the opening ‘Requiem’ certainly brought the idea of church music to the concert hall; but those trombones’ virtuosity was really called upon in the ‘Kyrie’ fugue, a challenge the three LPO players rose to magnificently (specifically, Mark Templeton, David Whitehouse and Matthew Lewis). Again, the ‘Dies irae’ was taken at an exciting speed; and in sympathy, the ‘Tuba mirum’ was a nice two-in-a-bar. Here, Croatian baritone Leon Košavič excelled. His voice is not huge but it is very focused. The problem, if such it is, was that Sara Mingardo’s contributions throughout the night eclipsed her colleagues by some way. A true contralto, not a mezzo, Stutzmann and Mingardo recently collaborated in a Handel Messiah with the Detroit Symphony, and they clearly work well together (and incidentally Mingardo’s recording with Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker on DG is well worth seeking out). Ukrainian soprano Kateryna Kasper’s sound could tend towards the piercing, while tenor Robin Tritschler gave a fine ‘Mors stupebit.’ Four distinct personalities, therefore, and yet, when the quartet came together as a unit, the sound was perfectly balanced, as if individuals melded into a quartet whole. One suspects Stutzmann’s influence here.

Time and time again, Stutzmann’s attention to orchestral detail came through, the orchestra reacting to her direction with incredible flexibility, shading each panel appropriately. Light shone through the ‘Domine Jesu’ as if through a stained glass window; the pure blaze of the ‘Sanctus’ took away the stained glass and allowed us to sit in pure spiritual radiance, while the ‘Benedictus’ had an easy grace.

Perhaps Stutzmann left too many long pauses between movements, so there was a threat of disjunction. But that was a small quibble given the joy provided when the music was ongoing, the whole a fitting and poignant tribute to those who lost their lives and were injured last week. One looks forward to Stutzmann’s return to a London podium with some impatience.

Colin Clarke

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