Gusts of Splendour from the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Strauss, Beethoven: Angela Denoke (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), The Anvil, Basingstoke, 27.2.2013

Strauss: Tod und Verklärung
Strauss:  Five Songs
Beethoven: Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67

A disappointingly small audience gave a warm reception to an excellent concert last night.  The Philharmonia played with easy virtuosity and musical sensitivity – as one would expect.  They had had a busy day in Basingstoke.  Earlier, they had brought their flagship ‘Orchestra Unwrapped’ series to over 1000 enthusiastic 7-11 year olds given the chance to hear a world-class orchestra up close and awesome.  But just a few hour later, despite programming one of Classical Music’s most popular works and playing under the baton of a conductor some tip as the next director of the Berlin Philharmonic, the hall was struggling to be half full.  But those of us who made the trip were well rewarded.

The concert opened with Richard Strauss’ third Tone Poem, written when he was just twenty-four – Death and Transfiguration.  The composer created his own narrative; a person in the painful last hours of life, their death and transformation.  Nelsons has made something of a speciality of Strauss and is in the process of recording the major orchestral works with his ‘own’ orchestra – the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’.  I have heard the CDs of some of those recordings but this was the first time I have seen the much-lauded Nelsons live.  He brings to the podium an appealing mix of personal modesty but musical authority.  I’m not sure the simple baggy black shirt that looks about eight sizes too big creates much a sense of occasion or theatre but it certainly affords him the space to move – he’s a conductor who likes to occupy every inch of the space around him in a very active manner.  But crucially – and this is what matters to the players – his stick technique and musical intent are crystal clear.  Nelsons’ Strauss is dynamic but unsentimental.  The Philharmonia were performing with the minimum number of strings practicable; the players present gave their considerable all. In the rest of the programme this was not an issue but in the large-scale tone poem the strings – just eight cellos and the other sections in proportion – struggled to produce sufficient weight of tone.  In time I suspect Nelsons will feel able to embrace an even more fluid approach to this music; currently I think he wants to avoid any possible charge of sentimentality.  In the opening section this pays dividends by creating an atmosphere of gentle regret, the absolutely first rate playing of the Philharmonia wind principals coming clear from the very off with Gordon Hunt on oboe being answered by the (literally) golden flute of Samuel Coles.  But there was stunning work too from bassoon Amy Harman and Cor Anglais Jill Crowther.  This is where you realise how hard it is to give an Oscars acceptance speech – all the playing deserved special mention!

The first ‘convulsion’ brought home the issue for the strings when the brass – revelling in the Anvil’s rich acoustic – rather overwhelmed them – not altogether inappropriate, of course, in the depiction of a life and death struggle.  Nelsons’ preference to keep passages moving forward worked well during this struggle but conversely his refusal to linger in the following ‘reminiscence’ section made it feel less poignant than I have heard it.  Perhaps he was playing a longer game – the brass chorale that develops in the Transfiguration section was beautifully paced and voiced – and then at the final climactic release Nelsons did allow a significant broadening achieving a cathartic release before the music sinks down into radiant repose.  This was a brilliantly executed performance of a good but not yet great interpretation.

Strauss’ orchestral songs are rather dominated by the wonderful Four Last Songs.  This was a rare opportunity to hear just how fine many of his others are too.  The orchestra was joined by the superb Angela Denoke who on the evidence here must be one of the finest Strauss singers of the current time.  Her vocal instrument seems absolutely perfectly attuned to the Straussian idiom – rich and full but agile and even.  She has won prizes for her assumption of the title role in Salome and performed the great soprano roles in the major opera houses of the world.  It was a genuine privilege to hear World Class singing like this.  Aside from the many subtle and telling musical points she made Ms Denoke has a very compelling stage presence.  Yet it is a presence born out of near complete stillness; just the occasional raised hand or inclination of the head underlines a moment in the text.  Whoever chose the five programmed songs needs to be congratulated too.  Although they are taken from different sets and different times of Strauss’ life they all related to various aspects of love and as such made for a thoroughly compelling miniature song cycle in their own right.  Strauss’ brilliance as an orchestrator is even more in evidence here than the ‘obvious’ big gestures in his tone poems.  From the opening bars of Das Rosenband it was clear than Ms Denoke was able to ride the orchestral textures with unforced ease.  She brought to the music an unforced rhythmic freedom that encouraged Nelsons to do he same with far more effect than he achieved in the earlier tone poem.

The genius of the word setting was especially apparent in the second song; Waldseligkeit (Woodland Rapture).  Strauss evokes the gently rustling forest with the near impressionist genius allowing the voice to sing here with a gentle rapture of heart-stopping beauty.  The third song – Ruhe, meine Seele (Rest my soul) was originally written for voice and piano in 1894 but Strauss chose to orchestrate it at the very end of his life in 1948.  This makes it contemporary – in orchestration terms alone – with the Four Last Songs (which in turn evoke Death and Transfiguration – another bonus point to the programme planner).  This was the first of the evening’s set to use a full orchestration but again it was the little details that register – celesta, harp harmonics and flute producing a moment of musical poetry on the words “through the leaves’ dark veil, bright sunshine steals… ” and the richly voiced chords on “rest my soul…”.

Throughout the orchestra were superbly alert to every detail of both the music and Ms Denoke’s interpretation.  The final song Cäcilie brought the group to a suitably uplifting and joyous end.  Written as part of a wedding gift for his wife Pauline Strauss produced a song as simple – in spirit – and sincere in its emotion as anything he ever produced.  “To soar upwards, borne on light” wrote the poet [more intimations of transfiguration perhaps…?] and that was exactly how it sounded in the hall.  Very warm applause in hall greeted – quite rightly – this masterclass in singing – so warm that we were treated to an unannounced encore: the wonderful Zueignung,(Dedication) Op.10 Nr.1. Less than two minutes of pure delight and a perfect way to conclude a very impressive performance.

The concert was completed with that most famous of all symphonies; Beethoven’s Fifth.  I am not sure there can be any revelatory performances of this work anymore, but that being the case this was a very convincing dynamic interpretation that reminded one of just what a revolutionary work it was.  As mentioned before, the scale of the string section worked very well here with the heavy brass joining for the finale only.  For the opening, with its famous fate motif, Nelsons favoured an urgent, muscular approach – again with little desire to linger or allow any pause to break the steely determination of the movement; so much so, that Gordon Hunt’s brief lyrical interlude on the oboe provided welcome relief in an otherwise unforgiving landscape.  But this is why I said the revolutionary quality of the music was revealed.  The excellent programme note [worthy of mention for the entire concert not just this work] made the valid point that at its first performance knowledgeable musicians and critics were left in utter confusion about just how many ‘rules’ Beethoven broke!

Throughout Nelsons favoured beauty and clarity over sentimentality.  This was especially true in the second movement Andante con moto.  Strings textures were kept admirably clean with dynamics terraced to dramatic effect; control was very much the driving force.  A Scherzo that was relatively steady – in comparison to the movements that preceded it – paid dividends in two ways; it allowed the fugato passages for the strings to have an ideal gruff energy whilst allowing ideal articulation but it also set-up the transition into the Finale with the Promethean trombones brilliantly.  Other passing details such as the duet between pizzicato strings and an impish bassoon were a memorable delight.  Indeed, Nelsons paced the cumulative momentum of the music from the start of the scherzo through to the work’s conclusion very impressively.

I have borrowed my review’s title from the programme which in turn quoted E M Forster in Howard’s End; “Gusts of Splendour, Gods and Demigods contending… magnificent victory, magnificent death.”  This was a wholly memorable evening of live music making. Now to persuade some of those 1000 children to come again…….!


Nick Barnard