United Kingdom Mozart and Richard Strauss: Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Lucy Crowe (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 8.5.2014 (CS)
Mozart: Symphony No 38 (Prague)
Strauss: Extracts from Der Rosenkavalier
Marschallin – Anne Schwanewilms
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Sophie – Lucy Crowe
I left the Barbican Centre after this tremendous concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder feeling like a child at a birthday party who, eschewing the plainer fare, has gorged on chocolate cake, ice-cream and Eton Mess – although it was not so much a sugar rush as sensory repletion which made me heady.
Despite their best intentions to write a concise opera that would probably last no longer than two and a half hours – or in Hofmannsthal’s words, be ‘half the length of Die Meistersinger’ – the natural tendency of Richard Strauss and his librettist towards prolixity resulted in the four-plus hours of Der Rosenkavalier. No one would complain: this remains Strauss’s most-loved opera. But, on this occasion we were offered the ‘best bits’, delivered by a ‘dream team’ of sopranos, and the result was an unalleviated feast of sonic sumptuousness.
The three soloists – Anne Schwanewilms, Sarah Connolly and Lucy Crowe – are all experienced, esteemed exponents of their respective roles, so it was no surprise that, although this was not a semi-staged performance, the characterisation had a convincing, absorbing realism. What was perhaps unanticipated was the way in which, in the absence of directorial supervision and theatrical context, Schwanewilms, Connolly and Crowe were able to let Strauss’s music speak for itself, communicating so powerfully, without intrusion or distraction.
‘Released’ from the pit, the LSO were a dazzling force. The horns ripped through the orchestral orgasms of the prelude depicting the exultant Octavian, but there was tenderness too in the falling, more feminine motif. In the opening scene of Act 1, Elder balanced ardour and wistfulness, quelling the instrumental exuberance in the intimate exchanges between the Marschallin and her young lover. Connolly was, by turns, impassioned and petulant. Her full, blooming tone perfectly expressed the youth’s brimming fervour and desperate impatience, the glowing richness of Octavian’s impatient outbursts a satisfying complement to Schwanewilms’ self-possession.
Resplendent in her trademark red, Schwanewilms was the embodiment of noble elegance and poise, the sweeping train of her dazzling gown suggesting a regal air. She found an endless array of vocal colours, flawless in the silky middle, gleaming at the top and surprising with a darkness at times which revealed the Marschallin’s pensive sadness and humanity. She encouraged, admonished and teased her besotted Quinquin, dry staccato pizzicati and Andrew Marriner’s playful clarinet adding a tender humour to her playful banter.
At the close of Act 1, resisting Connolly’s ever more pressing insistence, Schwanewilms attained an astonishing stillness and focus; withdrawing into her own emotions, the silvery tone and crystalline floating arcs of melody established an affecting introspection, which even the boisterous arrival of the four footmen (well-marshalled young soloists from the Guildhall School of Music) could not disturb. She lingered with almost unbearable poignancy on ‘Da drinn is die silberne Ros’n’ (‘In here is the silver rose’), as if she could not bear to relinquish the casket and, by implication, Octavian’s love. As leader Carmine Lauri’s violin solo sang an eloquent commentary, Schwanewilms herself seemed almost overcome, wiping away a tear. But, Elder judged the moment, and the tempo, perfectly, never allowing the sentimentality to slip into mawkishness.
Donning a stylish frock-coat, indicative of Octavian’s new-found status and responsibility, Connolly returned to present the silver rose to Lucy Crowe’s Sophie. Crowe’s diffidence and hesitancy wonderfully captured the air of youthful disconcertion. With the presentation of the rose, gaucheness transformed to ecstasy, Crowe’s soaring, hovering ‘Wie himmlische, nicht irdische’ (‘How heavenly, how unearthly’) celestial indeed: a suspension of time before the dawning of an almost unnaturally overwhelming bliss, evoked by the urgency of the woodwind counterpoint. The ensuing duet was utterly entrancing as the entwining vocal lines of the newly enamoured youths blossomed and shone. Accompanied by delicate flute and harp, Octavian’s awed profession, ‘Den will ich nie vergessen bis an meinen Tod’ (‘I shall never forget this until I die’), was a sentiment shared by many, I’m sure.
The final scene of Act 3 was prefaced by a Viennese waltz, as ‘sweet and saucy’ as Hofmannsthal desired, which allowed the six percussionists to indulge their high-spirits. And, the climactic trio was as perfect as one could hope for, Schwanewilms’ luminous initiating phrase, ‘Hab’ mirs gelobt, ihn lieb zu haben in der richtigen Weis’’ (‘I vowed to myself that I would love him in the right way’), releasing an outpouring of musical desire from voices and orchestra alike. Wrung of all emotion, the Marschallin accepted with poignant resignation Faninal’s consolation, ‘That’s the way young people are’: ‘Ja, Ja’.
But this is not the opera’s last word. And, with a brisk swish, Elder swept aside the romanticism and conjured the Marschallin’s black page, tripping across the stage to retrieve his mistress’s handkerchief, thereby restoring the elegant insouciance of the comedy of manners which Strauss designed.
Ironically, Strauss vociferously fought conductors’ and directors’ determination to cut his score, blasting their ‘stupidity’ and recalling that one audience member remarked, upon seeing Strauss’s own Berlin production of the opera, that it seemed to her much shorter than in Dresden. The composer’s riposte: “Yes, because there were fewer cuts in it.” So, can one have too much of a good thing? Does one need a sorbet or slice of dry bread to cleanse the palette, in order truly to appreciate the full range of flavours? On the basis of this performance, I’m happy to over-indulge gluttonously.
Before the interval the LSO were in more solemn mood, presenting a weighty and expansive reading of Mozart’s Prague Symphony: all repeats were observed, creating broad architectural structures within which Elder effectively balanced light and shade, directing the players unfussily but with spirited encouragement. The minimal use of vibrato reminded one of Elder’s frequent collaborations with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, although this was no period performance: the ensemble was larger and the sound rich.
Composed as an offering to the city where his music was perennially feted, while the Viennese proved more fickle, Mozart opens the slow introduction with a sweeping theatrical flourish; and Elder certainly brought forth the drama of the work, emphasising the shifting moods and contrasts. The opening unison D pounded then immediately withdrew, the controlled, slight decrescendo suggesting a suppressed force which was further emphasised by the minor tonality and solemn bass tread. But, after the intricate, antiphonal turns of the violins, placed left and right, the Allegro sprung to life, the colours warm, and the syncopated rhythms lithe and light. Elder made much of the juxtapositions of buoyant imitative counterpoint and dense orchestral statements, but always the pulse drove forward.
The Andante recovered the poise of the Adagio introduction. Ever lyrical, the movement was characterised by sometimes troubling contrasts between delicate, expressive strings and the chromatic inflections of the woodwind’s long-breathed, reedy, sinuous solos. Bassoons and flutes were similarly impressive in the Presto finale, where the precision of the violins’ syncopated opening phrase prompted a surge of controlled energy and crisp articulation which Elder sustained throughout the lengthy movement.
The vivacity and theatricality that made Mozart the Bohemians’ favourite in 1787, and which Strauss aimed to emulate when he re-visited the elegant eighteenth-century, was much in evidence.