Herbig Achieves Heights of Excellence in Strauss-Shostakovich Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Strauss, Shostakovich: Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Günther Herbig (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 1.2. 2014 (MC)

Gunter Herbig, photo Kaylor Management Inc
Gunter Herbig, photo Kaylor Management Inc

Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24 (1888/89)
Richard Strauss:  Six songs after poems by Clemens Brentano, Op. 68 (1918, orch. 1933/40)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93 (1953)


The concert was broadcast live by BBC Radio 3.


The Strauss’s Voice festival at the Bridgwater Hall is well underway. Any fears that I might overload on Richard Strauss’s sumptuous music have been completely unfounded. So far I have enjoyed every single minute and with this BBC Philharmonic concert under Günther Herbig, a former chief guest conductor, the magnificently orchestrated music of Strauss continued to cast its spell and Shostakovich’s unique sound world jarred both nerves and conscience.

Ambitiously chosen as the opening work of the evening Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) is based on a poem by Alexander Ritter concerned with the subject of death which Strauss had requested. The seriousness of the symphonic poem is rather curious for a fit and healthy twenty-four year old who would, it seems, have had little personal experience of people dying. The music creatively portrays the dying artist lying in his bed with his past life appearing before him and then the soul leaving the body to achieve everlasting life. Right from the opening of the score with flutes and oboe playing over a pillow of gently breathing strings I found it remarkable how successfully the orchestra under Herbig managed to get under the skin of Strauss’s score with exemplary pacing and sympathetic judgment of the various episodes. The assured playing contained an adroitness of touch for a large orchestra which the experienced Herbig never allowed to sound inflated. Communicated with such intense passion the celebrated concluding section that surrounds the transfiguration highlighted Strauss at his most disarmingly generous.

Following the extraordinary success of Salome in 1905 and during the intervening years to 1918 with Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and the completion of Die Frau ohne Schatten Strauss had been busy concentrating on cementing his position as an opera composer of the first order. Probably emulating Mahler’s success with his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs, Strauss turned to texts from the German romantic poet Clemens Brentano, and the result was the set of six Brentano Lieder that Strauss started orchestrating around fifteen years later. It was good to have the rare opportunity of hearing the furiously demanding set of Brentano Lieder sung by Danish operatic soprano Inger Dam-Jensen, the 1993 winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Any challenges of being heard amid the Bridgewater Hall acoustic and over Strauss’s lush orchestration did not affect the stunningly dressed soprano too much. Throughout Dam-Jensen showed insightful musicality, delivering a reasonable range of vocal colour and a lovely legato line amid Strauss’s verdantly evocative imagery. Any minor irritation with the soprano’s vibrato was soon negated by the persuasive weight of passion she delivered so capably across the varying moods. Best of all was the relative ease with which Dam-Jensen negotiated the considerable coloratura demands of the fifth song of the set Amor (Cupid). Having appraised the concert again on the BBC iPlayer there should be no problem at all for the BBC Radio 3 listeners who have the benefit of Dam-Jensen’s amplified voice sounding crystal clear.

Putting aside the sumptuous orchestration of the Strauss’s Voice series from the first half after the interval came the emotional severity and unremitting anguish of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor. Premiered in 1953 just nine months after Stalin’s’ death the Symphony No. 10 came after a characteristically long eight year orchestral silence. Whatever the truth of Solomon Volkov’s book Testimony, the claimed memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, it would be hard to imagine the Symphony No. 10 being anything other than a symphonic portrayal of the brutality of the Stalin years in the Soviet Union.

In 1989 a Soviet weekly newspaper Argumenti i Fakti reported that directly attributable to Stalin’s regime “about 20 million died in labour camps, forced collectivisation, famine and executions.” Even though the denounced and blacklisted Shostakovich survived, like many others living with the mental exhaustion of continual fear for their lives. it’s not surprising that Shostakovich poured out his angst at one of mankind’s darkest tragedies into this writing.

It might seem like a bit of a trek to the podium these days for the eighty-two year old maestro but his assurance and deep insights make everything meaningful serving to deepen the emotional effect. At the start of the opening movement Moderato, Maestro Herbig must have been delighted with the first sunken threads of string sound full of dark foreboding. As the conflicting forces struggled for dominance the prevailing mood produced was one of deep anguish. Amid the abundance of crucial detail included the haunted waltz section and the potent and affecting elegy for the two piccolos that felt like a cry for the whole Soviet Union. Cyclonic and spitting venom it would be hard to hear the second movement Allegro as being anything but a musical portrait of Stalin. I doubt this brief music has ever communicated a greater sense of sheer terror.

Opening in a suspicious mood on the strings and permeated with the DCSH and ELMIRA motifs it was highly disconcerting hearing the third movement Allegretto that felt like peering into Shostakovich’s personal world. A number of striking solos for winds and the leader served to draw the listener further into the uneasy sphere.

Bleak and vast like a Siberian landscape the Finale, marked Andante – Allegro, sent out chilling shivers like a depiction of living through a monotonous and meaningless existence. In the Allegro the weight of the momentum, the adrenalin generated and the dramatic effect of the bone jarring climaxes marked the powerful playing as the symphony tore towards its electrifying conclusion.

Under Günther Herbig the BBC Philharmonic maintained its remarkable form achieving heights of excellence in Strauss and Shostakovich that one could previously only expect from the finest Austro/German and Russian orchestras.

Michael Cookson