Superb Strauss Opens The Rest is Noise Festival in London

United KingdomUnited KingdomR. Strauss: Karita Mattila (soprano); Thomas Hampson (baritone); London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.1.2013 (CC)

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Four Early Songs, Op. 33
Notturno, Op. 44/1
“Dance of the Seven Veils” and Final Scene from Salome

One needs to be alert to dangers of positing that any concert is a likely concert of the year this early in the season, and yet on this occasion it is difficult to silence such thoughts. The concert, the opening of the year-long Festival inspired by Alex Ross’ book The Rest is Noise, climaxed in an astonishing reading by Mattila of the Final Scene from Salome; yet the works moving towards this climax were each, in their own way, thrilling. Performances throughout were newly-minted, the LPO sounding as if they were discovering the scores (clearly not the case in Also sprach; almost certainly the case in the Notturno).

The famous opening of Also sprach Zarathustra was perfectly caught, with superb brass (especially the radiant trumpets) and glowing strings. Jurowski’s vision was notable not only for his close observation of Strauss’ scoring, but also for his long-range vision which ensured the piece emerged as a unique whole. Impressive moments included a masterly disintegration of texture, a bizarre and determined fugue and a superb violin solo by LPO leader Pieter Schoeman (who was to feature again later on in the concert, in the Notturno). Most importantly it sounded as if there was a solid unanimity of interpretation at work here.

Jurowski returned to the stage to give a mini-talk on the festival The Rest is Noise, inspired by Alex Ross’ book. He talked of how the evening was structured around the juxtaposition of the Apollonian aspect of Strauss (the central two items) and the Dionysian (the flanking items). The inclusion of the rarely-heard Op. 33 songs was noteworthy, the four songs split two each between Mattila and Hampson – with Mattila taking the first two, Hampson the rest. Jurowski set up a gorgeous sense of yearning for Verführung (‘Seduction’), the first item. Mattila’s low register sounded positively mezzo-ish. Her sound was beautifully open, her low register again effective in Gesang der Apollopriesterin (‘Song of Apollo’s priestess’).

Enter Hampson for the remaining two items. His bearing and presence are magisterial; so, too, on this occasion, was his voice. He handled both songs – the Wagner-influenced Hymnus, with its Tannhäuser-like harps, and Pilgers Morgenlied – with an identification that was wholly convincing. In any other context, there would have been no complaints, but up against Mattila in such close juxtaposition, it was clear who the finer singer was. Mattila left no room for doubt in her all-consuming interpretations; Hampson was perhaps more obviously a singer interpreting the text rather than a manifestation of the song itself.

All this made for a long first half – indeed, the concert as a whole finished around 10pm. The performance of the Notturno, Op. 44/1, a work that confronts and dwells on mortality itself, was a revelation. This 1899 piece sets a poem by Richard Dehmel, whose heady writing was the inspiration for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Pieter Schoeman shared centre stage with Hampson for this rapt account of a work that left us all, surely, wondering where it had been all our lives. At nearly a quarter of an hour long, this is a substantive statement and on the present evidence it needs to be heard more often. Schoeman’s sweet tone and persuasive phrasing were every inch the match for Hampson’ eloquence. A spoken introduction, which effectively took the form of Jurowski interviewing Hampson, was a nice touch.

Finally, a true climax. Jurowski’s conducting of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” was electric, blessed with raw energy as well as a remarkable approach to detail. It was the perfect statement of the brazen world of Strauss’ Salome, a world felt in all its elemental force with Mattila’s remarkable Closing Scene. Jurowski revealed he was using a lighter scoring found in Dresden, which meant Mattila was less likely to be drowned out in a concert performance. Everything about Mattila became Salome, her bodily movements deranged and (seemingly) uncontrolled. She lived every word, projecting Salome’s obsessive nature to perfection. Jurowski ensured that the orchestra remained a vital part of this monodrama, but all eyes and ears were surely on Mattila. As far as Salome is concerned, she appears to have everything. The final orchestral stabbing chords finished her off, each flurry finding her moving closer to the floor. Remarkable, visceral stuff.

Microphones were present, but who knows whether the soloists’ recording companies will allow the release of the vocal parts of this concert. One certainly hopes so.

Colin Clarke