United Kingdom Strauss and Mozart: Imogen Cooper (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Barbican, London, 4.5.2014 (MB)
Strauss – Serenade in E-flat major, op.7
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.22 in E-flat major, KV 482
Strauss – Macbeth, op.23
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28
Strauss and Mozart are anything but surprising bedfellows; indeed, as Strauss’s career progresses, one of the most interesting battles to observe, even to experience, is that between what, for the sake of argument, we might call the twin poles of the Mozartian and the Wagnerian. Mozart is, though, less apparent as an influence in much of Strauss’s earliest music, an exception being the Wind Serenade, op.7, so here we were able to experience Mozart both as complement and contrast. The Serenade received a loving account from Sir Mark Elder; I am anything but a foe of such music-making, but there were occasions when I wondered whether it might have been just a little too loving. That minor reservation aside, there was much to savour, not least the playing from members of the LSO. The introduction certainly presaged – or, in historical terms, followed – Mozart’s serenade writing, beautifully expressed by the colours of the LSO woodwind. There was also, moreover, a fine sense of drama, much as one always experiences in Mozart’s instrumental music. (It was thoughtful of the occupant of seat L47 in the Stalls not to wait until as late as the second bar to start coughing, still more of her to ensure that the second bar was not left out either.) Recognisably Straussian phrases, of which there are a good few, made their point without undue emphasis. Elder’s spacious manner worked well on the whole.
Imogen Cooper joined the orchestra for its move from interesting early work to mature masterpiece. Elder opted for a tiny orchestra: only eight first violins, down to three double basses. Sometimes I felt the lack of strings more than at other times, but there was a slight mismatch with Cooper’s admirably big-boned approach. Hers indeed was a performance of such distinction that I was put in mind of Sir Clifford Curzon’s Mozart. The first movement was taken at a swift tempo but, for the most part, was not too driven. Split violins made their point on a number of occasions. And once Cooper entered the fray, the orchestra proved more yielding too. It was a blessing to hear Mozart treated as Meissen china, whilst at the same time not degenerating into sentimentality or ‘period’ grotesquerie. The pianist’s touch enabled both clarity and warmth. Still more important was the formal dynamism to be heard, especially in the development and recapitulation, which achieved a splendid sense of return.
The opening of the slow movement was darkly veiled, yet without asceticism. Splendidly judged by Elder, it sounded akin to the opening of an accompagnato or arioso – which is, in a sense, just what it is. Cooper proved the master – or should that be ‘mistress’? – of the long line, a line which embodied dignified pathos, both strong and tender. If I have a criticism, it is that there perhaps might have been a little more of the ‘tender’, such as one hears with, for instance, Daniel Barenboim, but Cooper’s Classicism had its own justification and impetus. Again, clarity of part writing was a particular virtue: not as an end in itself but as an aid to expression; again, the LSO winds proved ravishing, especially during the episodes. At the end, however, there were certainly passages in which a cushion of a few more strings would have been welcome. Mozart’s finale was given a performance that was spirited, whilst staying on the right side of raucous (just about, in the case of trumpets and drums). Piano virtues were as before: this was a splendidly forthright performance, equally admirable in its chiaroscuro. The central serenade stopped the heart as it must. And the cadenza – by Edwin Fischer, I think, like that used in the first movement – was magnificently played: initially Beethovenian, prior to melting.
There was certainly no shortage of strings in either of the Strauss tone poems performed in the second half: eight desks of first violins, down to eight double basses. Elder gave an eloquent spoken introduction to the unfairly neglected Macbeth. The chance to hear that early work was justification enough for the concert, let alone in so fine a performance as ensued. As the conductor remarked, Strauss here portrays in sound the psychology of two murderers and their interaction, not least through alteration – and not quite co-existence – of meter. It is, he explained, ‘a dark, unremitting, ruthless’ piece, not ‘gorgeous’. I might cavil slightly at the latter, negative part of the claim, for there are moments which might fall under that umbrella, but the general truth holds. The work received a blazing opening; there were shades of Liszt, yes, but once one caught certain turns of phrase, one knew very well the actual identity of the composer. There was a properly frightening – ‘terrifying’ would be too strong – quality to the psychological impulses on display, but there was plenty of phantasmagoria too, not least in Lady Macbeth’s putting on a show: knowing sweetness. Strauss showed himself an ironist even in the mid-1880s. The darkness of the bass line, however, gave the game away, just in case one were in any doubt, and then that darkness encompassed the orchestra more or less completely. Uncertainty of conclusion was not the least of this fine performance’s virtues. The presence of microphones was a good sign. Now, might we also have some Liszt from these musicians?
Before indulging in that fantasy, however, I should turn to the final work, Till Eulenspiegel. It received a truly outstanding performance; I am not sure that I have heard a better one. Orchestral excellence is of course here a sine qua non, and there was virtuosity to be heard in abundance, indeed without exception. However, it never sounded as if it were for its own sake – as it does, perhaps surprisingly, from time to time in an older version of this orchestra’s recording with Claudio Abbado. There was once again a real sense of drama, doubtless born of Elder’s long experience as an opera conductor. It was sharp, brilliant, sardonic – and that was possible because the LSO managed both to be playable as a single instrument and to retain its myriad of colours and individual personalities. Narrative and commentary were experienced in equal measure; although ‘scintillating’ may now be a word overused, it seems the right one in this case. Not that any of this incident was at the expense of the longer line, far from it. Above all, however, I felt astonishment once again at the superlative orchestral craftsmanship of Richard Strauss.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard by clicking here