Three Favourite Pieces by the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Richard Strauss, Mahler, Brahms: Christopher Maltman (baritone), London Symphony Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Barbican Hall, London. 15.3.2012. (CG)  

Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung Op.24 (1889-90)
Mahler: Kindertodtenlieder (1901-4)
Brahms:   Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op.73 (1877)

Three of this reviewer’s favourite works, London’s most frequently feted orchestra (the LSO), one of our star baritones (Christopher Maltman), and Robin Ticciati, at 27 a hot property of the conducting world; this concert certainly augured well.

Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), his second major tone poem, can be a tricky piece to get right. Even though still only twenty-five, the composer’s handling of the orchestra was already virtuosic, but some have had doubts about the depth of the piece. Why was this young man, with a bright future ahead, writing about the struggle against death, giving into it, and finally achieving glory in the afterlife? Of course it’s a richly romantic notion, and Strauss was rapidly becoming a leader of the late Romantic movement.

The piece has a narrative that’s relatively easy to follow, but if you indulge too much it can seem discursive, the various sections insufficiently related. By and large Ticciati avoided any major pitfalls, and this was an intelligent reading. The quietly irregular throbbing string chords felt like approaching death at the beginning, and the explosion as the hero commenced his agonizing struggle was terrifying. The woodwind and violin solos were all sweetly fashioned in the more delicately nostalgic sections, the trombones were horribly menacing as death approaches, and the aspirational theme as the soul rises to immortality was perfectly judged, with beautifully balanced quiet chords at the end.

So – all well done and totally professional. Could one have wanted even more drama, commitment, and a greater sense of propulsion periodically? Perhaps.

Next it was Christopher Maltman’s turn to give a heart-rending account of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. When Mahler wrote these extraordinary and desperately sad songs he was a good deal older than Strauss in the previous work; one can speculate as to whether he was prophesying the death of his own child a few years later, or recalling the death of his brother many years previously; probably both. At any rate, Mahler was obsessed with death – a theme which was to permeate his work right to the end.

Maltman’s reading was quietly bitter, unforced and unsentimental. That is not to suggest there was no beauty of tone – we had that, alright, but it was never present for its own sake. I found it terribly moving, despite the performance being wrecked by the most dreadful racket for the first twenty seconds or so. Why don’t they remind people to turn off their phones and watch-alarms at the Barbican, as they do at the Festival hall?

Ticciati has won plaudits for his operatic conducting, and it’s not hard to see why. He was the most sensitive accompanist, carefully attentive to Maltman, and he drew some lovely contributions from the LSO’s wind players too. Christine Pendrill, Queen of the Cor Anglais, excelled just as she always does, and there were equally touching contributions from Gareth Davies, Guillaume Deshayes, and Chris Richards on flute, oboe and clarinet respectively. The balance between soloist and orchestra was exemplary and even in the stormy final song, Maltman rose above the orchestra to telling effect.

And so to Brahms and his glorious Second Symphony. I would so love to go into raptures about this, but I’m left feeling slightly “iffy.” Why? This is a fabulous orchestra; the ensemble playing is nearly always bang-on, intonation likewise, and each player is terrific in his or her own right. And let’s not get things out of perspective – this performance was not in any way bad, and my problem with it could probably be simply that things were not to my own taste. It happens!

The horns were rather too loud at the start, meaning that I didn’t get that haunting/mysterious feeling that I have often loved. The same applied to the passages leading to the second main theme in the violins, which also wasn’t quite sunny enough. Then Ticciati didn’t repeat the exposition, as marked by Brahms. The first movement continued in an ever-so-slightly “matter of fact” way, and there was no real sense of homecoming when we came to the recapitulation, or adventure during the extraordinary coda.

The second movement lacked weight, somehow, and the third wasn’t quite charming enough at the start or skittish enough later on. The last movement had momentum, but there were a few slightly scrappy moments, and I didn’t feel it ended with quite the right blaze of glory. And the timpani dominated the proceedings too often.

Nit picking? Maybe. Ticciati was aiming at a predominantly “classical” approach to this work, and in its pastoral beauty I happen to think it warrants a bit more than that.


Christopher Gunning