Imaginative Programme Planning by Pappano for Royal Opera Orchestra and Gerhaher

26/04/2018

R.Strauss, Martin, Shostakovich, Elgar: Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 23.4.2018. (CC)

R. Strauss – Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, AV 142

Martin – Sechs Monologe aus ‘Jedermann’

Shostakovich – Eight American & British Folksongs (sung in English)

Elgar – Variations on an Original Theme, ‘Enigma’

It is always good to see the fine Royal Opera House Orchestra out in the spotlight, even if two out of the four items featured a singer – on this occasion, Gerhaher: a bridge between worlds, one might argue. The stage of the opera house had been acoustically altered, and yet still there were problems, with the orchestral sound lacking in depth.

Pappano opted to give a speech before a note was sounded. He called this as a ‘very, very important concert’, and referred to Strauss’s Metamorphosen, with which the concert opened as a ‘piece, I think, full of guilt’. The first half was complemented by Frank Martin’s broadly contemporaneous Sechs Monologe aus ‘Jedermann’, while the second half celebrated ‘community and friendship’ in its pairing of Shostakovich’s little-known Eight American & British Folksongs and Elgar’s collection of portraits of friends, the Enigma Variations.

It was, in fact, a triumph of programming, even if the timing approximation in the programme was some way off reality (a 9.35pm finish was promised; 9.55pm was closer). If the performances did not quite live up to the promise on paper, it remained a stimulating evening. The Strauss Metamorphosen is a lament for a war-ravaged civilisation and seemed to have poignant validity in the present world. Pappano is not one to linger, though, and this, coupled with the slightly raw string sound, gave the impression that journeying to the heart was just out of reach. There was more than a hint of Sinopoli’s deconstructionism here, but without the masterly insights Sinopoli could give with his laser-light vision. Under Pappano, the piece emerged as swift, bright and (surely the acoustic failings) decidedly bass light towards the end. Fabulous violin solos from the ROH leader Vasko Vassilev spoke eloquently; and Vassilev even managed to keep up (just) in passages where Pappano seemed intent on pushing forwards.

Written by Swiss composer Frank Martin, the Sechs Monologe aus ‘Jedermann’ was originally intended for baritone Max Christmann. The text is by Hofmannstahl, focusing on a rich man’s obsession with wealth and his fear of death, while ending with a sense of (decidedly Christian) acceptance. The version of the piece for voice and piano was premiered by Christmann in Gstaad in August 1944 with the composer at the piano; the orchestrated version was premiered by contralto Elsa Cavelti in Venice in 1949, conducted by Rafael Kubelík. As Pappano pointed out, the piece is chromatic but in a very different language to the Strauss. Although the text and translation were printed in the programme, the lack of light in the hall made the surtitles invaluable.

Martin writes with a dark yet fragrant chromaticism. Gerhaher’s lines were perfectly projected, presenting us with a raw, tortured soul. Pappano ensured the orchestra was properly impetuous for the second song and obtained brilliant, jagged shards of accompaniment in the fourth (over which is heard the angular, near-Sprechstimme vocal line). The music comes closest to Strauss in the consonances of the fifth song, a song of belief in Christ; the final song unfolded beautifully and inevitably in the final offering.

Post-interval, the Shostakovich, again contemporaneous with the first two items, was a rare outing for the Eight American & British Folksongs. Massive credit to Gerhaher for his brilliant English (there is a Russian version but given the location of this performance it was superfluous). Spontaneous applause was richly deserved in the playful ‘Billy Boy,’ while there were some lovely interior moments in ‘Oh! the Oak and the Ash’. Pappano relished every nuance of the accompaniments.

Finally, Elgar’s masterpiece, the Enigma Variations. Back to familiar territory, here with a sense of the most careful rehearsal possible to the theme, with its chords so expertly balanced. The occasional rough edge to the performance (the strings in Variations 2, ‘H. D. S-P.’  – Hew David Steuart-Powell) was balanced by the blossoming of ‘Nimrod’; this was a fine, if not overwhelming, performance.

Colin Clarke

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