Philippe Jordan and Angela Denoke: Variable in Strauss

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner and Strauss: Angela Denoke (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Jordan (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 30.1.2014 (MB)

WagnerTannhäuser: Overture
Strauss – Das Rosenband, op.36 no.1;
Ruhe, meine Seele, op.27 no.1;
Morgen! op.27 no.4;
Die heiligen drei Köinge aus Morgenland, op.56 no.6;
Freundliche Vision, op.48 no.1;
Cäcilie, op.27 no.2
Don Juan, op.20
Salome: ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ and Final Scene

Strauss presumably for his 150th anniversary: the Philharmonia has a few performances of his music this season. Why then the Overture to Tannhäuser? It is not, of course, that there is no connection between the two Richards, but one might have expected either more Wagner or none. Anyway, it did no harm, though Philippe Jordan’s conducting began in rather four-square fashion (despite the time signature), with little of the flow one would anticipate from a great Wagnerian such as Barenboim. It was often nicely shaded though, and the Venusberg music proved, not inappropriately, much freer in conception. The strings were more alert too, violins shimmering beautifully. Perhaps the contrast was the point; if so, however, the point was somewhat exaggerated.

 Angela Denoke joined the orchestra for six orchestral Lieder. She proved – somewhat to my surprise – an attentive, involving guide, her diction excellent, her emotional sincerity readily apparent. Jordan proved a sympathetic ‘accompanist’, and not just that: more attuned to colour and form too. There were, for instance, nicely Tristan-esque heft and hue to the introduction to Ruhe, meine Seele; the celeste and woodwind response could only have been Strauss’s, hinting at the phantasmagorical world of Der Rosenkavalier. Wagner remained, though, in Denoke’s sometimes Erda-like delivery – that despite her soprano voice – and the horns; likewise the moment of storm, like the opening to Die Walküre in miniature, albeit shorn of the politics. Guest leader, Amyn Merchant offered a winning solo in Morgen! Here, of course, the harmony and orchestration, above all their indivisible unity, are of such breathtaking, heart-rending beauty that something would be terribly amiss were one not moved. No such problem here, though I had been spoiled by hearing just a few days ago the superlative recording from Christine Schäfer and Claudio Abbado. This was admirably unsentimental, but might it not have yielded just a little more? In Die heiligen drei Könige, cellos and double basses echoed – at least in the context of this concert – passages in the Tannhäuser Overture. Sadness soon gave way to fantasy. For Strauss, the tale of the Three Kings seems only to be a folk-tale; he certainly never gave himself to religious thoughts. But what orchestral fantasy there is, especially in that gorgeous postlude one wants never to end! It benefited from especially fine playing from the violas. Cäcilie offered a winning contrast to much of what had gone before. In its romanticism – with a small ‘r’ – we were reminded, albeit considerably avant la lettre, of the world of Sophie and Arabella. Then we were ‘to soar upwards’, which Denoke accomplished more than creditably.

 Don Juan, which opened the second half, was something of a disappointment, despite excellent playing from the Philharmonia. The fault lay with Jordan, who seemed quite at sea with the work’s symphonic structure. He set the tone for subsequent lurching around by driving the opening all too fast – yes, it asks for swagger, but even so… – and then more or less grinding to a halt for the feminine interest. Furtwängler, Kempe, and many others have all proved far more convincing. Throughout, the incidental prevailed against coherence. Christopher Cowie’s splendid oboe solo nevertheless deserves mention.

 Onward to Salome. The Dance of the Seven Veils opened in similar vein; absurdly fast, with ensuing contrast too extreme for coherence. Orchestral balances were sometimes odd too: pizzicato strings far too prominent early on. Though matters improved, too much seemed to be heard – or at least communicated – on a bar-to-bar basis. Moreover, the music never quite danced as freely as it might have done. Would that the conductor might have learned from, say, Karajan. The moment of breakdown, however, was magnificent: mechanical in the best sense. The final scene opened splendidly too, with full orchestral sound and far less stiffness. Perhaps Jordan is more at home when he is guided by words? There was considerable, laudable dignity to Denoke’s delivery of the text. Alas, she soon sounded rather strained. Intonational difficulties then soon became more than that: straightforward wrong notes. A pity, since the Philharmonia now sounded as radiant as it often does under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Mark Berry