Aga Mikolaj Pours Feeling into Strauss Songs

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss: Aga Mikolaj (soprano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Vassily Sinaisky (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 8.2.2014 (MC)

Aga Mikolaj © Wernike
Aga Mikolaj © Wernike



Don Juan, Op. 20
Orchestral Songs:
Das Rosenband,
Des Dichters Abendgang
Symphonia domestica, Op. 53

The concert was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3

 After battening down the hatches from the incessant gales sweeping the country the Manchester audience were delighted to have the opportunity of nestling in the warm secure surroundings of the Bridgewater Hall and Richard Strauss’s opulent orchestrations. A concentrated exploration of Richard Strauss’s music the Strauss’s Voice series continued with distinction with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor emeritus Vassily Sinaisky.

A remarkably mature achievement for the twenty-four year old Strauss, his symphonic poem Don Juan contains a short epigraph from Nikolaus Lenau’s poem of the same name. Strauss’s music is renowned for its technical difficulty and the extremely popular Don Juan is a highly challenging proposition with which to begin a concert. The notoriously tough opening with the uprush of fiery strings met by the woodwind and brass all felt rather untidy. Unity was quickly restored by Maestro Sinaisky with his usual calm efficiency directing a thrilling performance of immense character and impact. Amid all the testosterone fuelled passion of the character Don Juan the performance didn’t skimp on detail I noticed how the orchestra coloured the conclusion with suggestions of foreboding. At several points during the work I was struck by the distinguished playing of the woodwind section demonstrated so markedly by oboist Jennifer Galloway’s glorious solo of the sensual love theme.

Susan Gritton the advertised soprano was ill and unable to perform. As a short notice replacement Polish soprano Aga Mikolaj, no stranger to Strauss’s music, grabbed her opportunity with both hands. Dressed in a turquoise and black gown the tall Mikolaj looked stunning and in fine voice poured an abundance of feeling into all six Strauss orchestral songs. Showing a compelling intimacy the appealing Wiegenlied (Cradle Song) was sung with a dreamy charm and the beautiful Morgen! (Tomorrow!) contained a tender, heartfelt quality assisted by a vivid solo from guest leader Zoë Beyers. Within the rich toned character of Waldseligkeit (Forest Rapture) Mikolaj’s perceptive rendition had an innate sense of introspection. Mikolaj has a creamy timbre and a dark, mezzo-like richness in her low register with sufficient weight to project satisfyingly through the hall without strain. Although Mikolaj is not a native German speaker I was easily able to follow the text; however, a slight diction issue did allow her word endings to tail off. A pupil of the late Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and a former member of the Bayerische Staatsoper, Mikolaj graced the Bridgwater Hall and should be welcomed back with open arms.

Partly representing a typical day in the family life of the Strauss the Symphonia domestica left some critics feeling the subject of domesticity such as bathing babies, serving dinner, parents rowing and love-making was too overtly trivial to be portrayed in music. Managing to keep a straight face Strauss stood firm maintaining that his life was “quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander the Great.” It’s a luxuriously scored work asking for four saxophones – a request that is often dropped as in this Sinaisky performance which strengthened the winds instead. This powerfully charged and compelling realisation of the challenging Symphonia domestica by the BBC Philharmonic wholeheartedly embraced Strauss’s massive uninterrupted stream of vibrant music making. Despite the strenuous exertions through Strauss’s extravagant outpourings the internal sound balance was outstanding due predominately to Maestro Sinaisky’s sensible choice of dynamics and tempo variations. The score may lack the memorability of Strauss’s finest works but the performance activated many highlights including the golden radiance emitted by the beautifully unified string section, velvety horns brazing out dependably and Alice Munday’s expressive oboe d’amore solo.

Evidently there was serious commotion from an individual in the hall during the concert but if any of the performers were aware of this it didn’t show. I did hear a loud thud at one point but was unable to see anything from my seat.


Michael Cookson