Excitement and Lyricism in Rarely Heard Strauss Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Mozart, Strauss:Zhang Zuo (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Cornelius Meister (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 17.6.2014 (PCG)

Wagner – Tannhäuser: Overture
Mozart – Piano Concerto No 21 in C, K467
Richard Strauss – Aus Italien, Op.16

Richard Strauss wrote four works which he described as symphonies; the two earliest of these were products of his teenage years, and followed classical models with little hint of the style of the mature composer to come. Of the later works, both the Symphonia domestica and the Alpensinfonie were essential programmatic pieces linked to a precise depiction of household and natural incidents, and the latter is really just a tone poem on a massive scale. But in between these works came Aus Italien, described by Strauss as a ‘symphonic fantasy’ but in essence a four-movement symphony with the titles of the movements not used for exact representation of specific events but simply as a guide to mood. The second movement even adopted the traditional classical sonata form, although the other movements could perhaps be regarded as miniature symphonic poems anticipating the greater masterworks to come. Aus Italien is rarely heard nowadays, but during this Strauss centenary year it certainly deserves an occasional outing. The third movement in particular, with its delicate woodwind tracery decribing the beach at Sorrento, has many of the attributes to be found in the mature Strauss; and the solemn opening of the whole work with its block chords is almost anticipatory of Vaughan Williams. In the final movement Strauss quotes extensively from Denza’s song Funiculi funicula, which he thought was a Neapolitan folksong (he described it as such in a superscription to its first appearance in the score) rather than a popular air designed to celebrate the opening of the railway running up the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Denza was still alive at the time (he died in 1920), and Strauss was promptly faced with a bill for royalties. (Not that such erroneous ascriptions are that unusual; I recall an LP release years ago which included an arrangement for male choir of Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea uncompromisingly credited as ‘traditional’.)  The performance here was excellent, exciting and lyrical by turns. Not all the elaborately figured counterpoint that Strauss was already writing even this early in his career was clearly audible, but that was the fault of the composer rather than the players.

The concert had begun with a fine upbeat performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in its original version. Now Tannhäuser may be early Wagner, but it is a good deal more innovative than is sometimes contended – as Berlioz recognised when he heard it in Paris in 1860. The middle section of the Pilgrims’ March, with its languid chromatics descending in a shower of double-flats, is not that far removed from the techniques of Tristan – which makes nonsense of the often-claimed stylistic discrepancies between Wagner’s ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’ versions. The opening motif of Tristan, for example, is prominently declaimed by the horns as a counterpoint to the Pilgrims’ March in the concluding bars. This performance didn’t stint on these ‘modernisms’ and the energetic Cornelius Meister’s interpretation placed the work solidly in the romantic tradition.

Similarly the opening tutti of the Mozart concerto which followed was firmly in the nineteenth century style, sounding very large-scale indeed. But therein lay the main problem with this performance. Zhang Zuo was a delicate soloist, who (it appeared) might have been happier with a less full-blooded accompaniment, and this meant that quite a lot of the filigree decoration was half-smothered (doubtless this problem of balance will have been rectified in the live broadcast relay on Radio 3). Ironically in the unaccompanied first movement cadenza she displayed more volume. The ‘Elvira Madigan’ second movement was taken positively briskly by Meister when compared to more emotional versions, but here the soloist seemed to want to linger and her entry brought a marked slowing of the pace. Throughout one was left with the impression that Meister’s version of Mozart was much more muscular than Zuo’s, and that not all the conflicts of approach had been ironed out during the process of rehearsal.

The orchestral playing throughout was superlative, and the strings made a real impact in both the Wagner and Strauss scores.

 Paul Corfield Godfrey


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