Finesse and Magic from Juraj Valčuha and the Philharmonia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Mozart, and Humperdinck: Jonathan Biss (piano), Olena Tokar (soprano), Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Juraj Valčuha (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.12.2014 (MB)

StraussDon Juan, op.20
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
HumperdinckHänsel und Gretel: Suite
StraussDer Rosenkavalier: Suite


As Strauss year draws towards a close, the Philharmonia under Juraj Valčuha offered a rather lovely pendant, two of his own works – the Rosenkavalier Suite sort of counts – paired with excerpts from an opera whose premiere he conducted, and an early masterpiece from the composer he, rightly, adored above all others. I still have two major performances to go: both Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra in Dresden (on which I shall report back soon), but this certainly kept me going in the meantime.

So extraordinarily accomplished and characteristic is Don Juan that we can forget how early a work it is; indeed, Strauss was only three years older than Mozart was when he composed his Ninth Piano Concerto. There was certainly nothing jejune to this account from Valčuha and the Phiharmonia. The opening was precise, not pedantic, its vitality and indeed vitalism aided by the greatest orchestral clarity and cultivation. Immediately afterwards, Valčuha displayed a commendable, meaningful flexibility that marked out this performance as integrative, in a well-nigh Wagnerian, musico-dramatic sense, rather than streamlined and shoehorned. Perhaps there was the occasional transition which might have been smoother still, but that is really to nit-pick, and perhaps to attempt a trade off with the keen sense of drama achieved. There was a beautifully judged early sunset, always a pertinent Straussian test; this was noble, without a hint of sentimentality, just as the Lenau-Strauss hero should be. A deep string sound worked wonders, passages with violas, cellos, and basses together reminding us that there are gains as well as losses to the now-unfashionable arrangement that has them seated together. Horns at that moment, followed by violins in all their Straussian glory, told us what mattered about this hero. His materialist death, in all its necessary instrumental detail, could not eclipse that memory.

As Jonathan Biss was about to come on stage for the concerto, Mitsuko Uchida crept into the Stalls: quite an endorsement, by any standards. The visible keenness of her listening and the generosity of her response would almost have been worth the price of admission in themselves. I was perhaps a little less enamoured with Biss’s performance, although there was certainly much to admire. Valčuha proved himself an expert ‘accompanist’, the opening to the first movement at least as alert as that to Don Juan. The Philharmonia offered wonderfully cultivated playing once again, deftly shaped by the conductor. Biss responded with clear, at times even pearly tone, my principal reservation about this movement simply being the tempo: was it perhaps a little too hurried? One might argue that this is a young man’s music, but I am not sure what that proves; in any case, does not all of Mozart’s music fall into that category? There was no quarrel to be had, though, with the shaping of phrases. Form was very clearly defined; particularly noticeable was the sense of kinship with older concerto forms in the orchestral tutti. Although the second movement was again on the swift side, it did not feel hurried. Operatic sadness and import were well judged. Likewise, there was a fine sense of musico-dramatic impetus, bringing us perhaps closer to Strauss than one might have thought, and certainly reminding us of another of his enthusiasms, the operas of Gluck. Above all, harmonic rhythm was understood and communicated. The finale lifted the spirits with a good nature to rival Haydn’s. Although its minuet was certainly graceful, Biss was perhaps a little cool. There was no doubting his technique, however; repeated notes, for instance, were an object lesson in performance.

It would take a sterner, steelier soul than mine to resist the call of those opening horns in the Overture to Hänsel und Gretel, especially when so tenderly played – the German weich seems so apt here – and so warmly responded to. I was drawn in, just as if in the opera house. Valčuha thereafter served up a lovable pot pourri, perhaps not quite so symphonic as when I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the opera at Covent Garden, but that is a comparison unduly odious. Olena Tokar, whom I had previously admired in Das Liebesverbot in Leipzig, and Kai Rüütel, whom I heard as Echo in this opera at its Royal Opera revival, both impressed in the opening duet and beyond. Voices and characters were sharply differentiated, Valčuha showing himself to be an operatic ‘natural’. (He is, I later learned, due this season to conduct Parsifal in Budapest, Turandot in Naples, and Jenůfa in Bologna.) And yes, your stern Beckmesser melted in the dance song. The Sandman’s Song followed, Tokar benefiting from breathtaking orchestral stillness at its opening; this certainly had that necessary sense of magic. The sincerity of Tokar’s delivery, when she told of angels bringing down sweet dreams from heaven, brought at least one tear to my eye. Following the Prayer, the siblings left the stage for the concluding Dream Pantomime, whose shaping was undoubtedly symphonic, Wagnerian brass and all. If Valčuha lingered just a little long towards the end, it was a fault readily forgiven.

For all one might suspect there to be affinity, what struck with the opening of the Rosenkavalier Suite – yes, I am afraid, the wretched 1945 assemblage, to whom no one ever seems to have owned up – was difference. A glistening edge returned to the orchestra. Romanticism was dead; modernist phantasmagoria – and what phantasmagoria! – was enthroned in all its assiduously pictorial glory. There was no doubt what was being depicted in the Prelude’s thrusting and afterglow. Even without voices, the Presentation of the Rose was well handled. Valčuha could not paper over some of the later cracks, but I am not sure that anyone has ever been able to do so. At least we got to enjoy the luck of the Lerchenaus with a decent swagger and lilt.

I hope that we shall hear more from this conductor, both in the concert hall and in the opera house. Both ENO and the Royal Opera would be well advised to offer him engagements.

Mark Berry

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