United Kingdom Richard Strauss: Soile Isokoski (soprano), Steven Isserlis (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Juanjo Mena (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 18.1.2014 (MC)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30
Three Hymns, Op. 71
Don Quixote, Op. 35
To mark the 150 anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Hallé and Manchester Camerata are performing a series of concerts entitled Strauss’s Voice at the Bridgwater Hall, Manchester. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s first concert in this series got underway with an enticing programme of the much admired Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 and Don Quixote, Op. 35 flanking the seldom heard orchestral songs Three Hymns, Op. 71 performed by soprano Soile Isokoski. A few days prior to the concert I had interviewed chief conductor Juanjo Mena and had attended a rehearsal session and it was soon evident that both orchestra and conductor strongly admired and held an empathy for the music of Strauss.
A lovely touch for the audience arriving at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall was the welcoming sounds of a brass ensemble from the RNCM playing several renditions of Strauss’s Fanfare for the City of Vienna. Inspired by Nietzsche’s book Also sprach Zarathustra Strauss’s symphonic poem of the same name is much underrated in its entirety. Strauss described the programme as depicting “the relationship of nature and human will”. The work is revered mainly for its wonderful opening passage, a depiction of Sunrise, undoubtedly one of the glories of classical music. How the BBC Philharmonic gleamed so dramatically in Sunrise with the organ pedal reverberating stunningly around the hall. Everything was in place with Maestro Mena ensuring an arresting tension from the extremes of iron-like strength to captivating beauty together with a wonderfully judged dynamic.
It is no surprise that the orchestral songs Three Hymns, Op. 71, settings of a Friedrich Hölderlin text, are infrequently heard in the concert hall proving a tough proposition for any soloist being especially draining over their substantial length. Despite a valiant effort by Strauss specialist Soile Isokoski she never seemed entirely comfortable and was noticeably unsteady and straining at times which in turn affected the bloom of the voice. The Finnish soprano’s voice didn’t feel substantial enough to meet the weighty challenges of the Hymnen. From my position in the hall I struggled to hear Isokoski at all over Strauss’s sumptuous orchestral textures and was barely able to follow the text. I made a point of listening to the performance again on the BBC iPlayer and as I suspected Isokoski’s amplified voice was suitably audible. Producing some ravishing sounds the playing of the immaculately prepared BBC Philharmonic was hard to fault.
Whilst holidaying in the Italian city of Florence an energised Strauss had the idea to base his symphonic poem Don Quixote (Fantastic Variations on a Theme of a Knightly Character), Op. 35 on the Spanish novel Don Quixote of La Mancha by Cervantes. Cast in a theme and variations form the work is scored for cello, viola and large orchestra. The part for solo cello, depicting the chivalric knight-errant Don Quixote, is by modern convention played not by the principal cellist but an international soloist taken here by Steven Isserlis. Representing the comical farmer come squire Sancho Panza are considerable parts for solo viola, tenor tuba, and bass clarinet. Strauss biographer Kurt Wilhelm described Don Quixote as “uncommonly hard for the orchestra”. Having heard a number of disappointing performances of Don Quixote over the years I can understand how when it was first written despite significant public interest its complexity presented many technical problems for players and was often avoided by orchestras of the day. Sounding extremely well rehearsed by Maestro Mena the BBC Philharmonic excelled with a compelling forward momentum together with warmly disarming characterisation. There is so much action in Strauss’s score even following a written description of the scenario is not easy to exactly match the music to the drama yet the assured playing easily drew me into this wonderful music. Steven Isserlis demonstrated all the enthusiasm and ardour for this work that he knows intimately and principal viola Steven Burnard played beautifully providing such impressive character to his depiction of Sancho Panza.
Brilliantly performed from both the head and the heart this BBC Philharmonic concert under the direction of Juanjo Mena is a real fillip for the Strauss’s Voice series.
The concert was being broadcast live by BBC Radio 3.