United Kingdom Strauss & Mozart: Maria João Pires (piano), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 19.10.2015 (GR).
Strauss: Don Juan, Op 20
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major, K595.
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op 40
Sandwiching the delicacy of a Mozart piano concerto between two heavy-duty helpings of Richard Strauss tone poems may not at first seem to be the ideal fayre for this concert, part of the Birmingham International Concert Season 2015/16 – but on Oct 19th it proved to be an excellent choice by the programme compilers. Of course, they had enormous help from the musicians present on the platform: the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (purported to be the world’s oldest orchestra) with maestro Riccardo Chailly and pianist Maria João Pires, the renowned Portuguese soloist. These three big names all lived up to their distinguished reputations, proving they were worthy of the enthusiastic reception from a packed Symphony Hall – even the choir-stalls were generously filled, with some fans wanting to get close to their idols.
One quotation from Nikolaus Lenau’s poem that heads the score of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, describes it rather well: Would that I could fly though the very place where beauty blossoms …. and, were it but for a moment, conquer. It also summed up the performance of Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester. Their opening salvo set the auditorium alight, reminding me of Andris Nelsons’ comment during his rehearsal of the work, that the first few bars may be compared to ‘releasing the cork on a champagne bottle’. But there was no indication of party-mode among the Leipzig players, so intense was their focus on the baton. Clearly a highly professional outfit, they worked as a team, although Strauss provides many opportunities for individual expression: the woodwind, harp, violin and xylophone were razor-sharp and among the first to show. This Lothario does not let the grass grow under his feet and his amorous adventures began as the clarinets led the woodwind in glorious style. As this theme, so suitable for a lover of the Don’s calibre, flits in and out of the spotlight, it graphically described the nature of his peccadillo. It’s going to take something special to hang on to this guy and so it turned out, his paramour being dismissed with a fierce outburst on the bass drum. Next, the wanderings of the flute illustrated that this Romeo was on the lookout for fresh talent; the tender oboe of Henrik Wahlgren provided it with a plaintive solo, his idyllic tone beautifully taken up by the other woodwind of the Gewandhausorchester, romantic sensations that stemmed from the fingers of Chailly. The passion of the moment told everyone that here was a partner that meant something to the composer; not all Strauss is mezzo forte! The horns and percussion emblazoned the trail forwards and brought our hero to a carnival, a euphoria from which the only way was down. Chailly’s crisp cut-off produced a devastating pause followed by an arresting finish, vividly announcing the doom awaiting Strauss’ Don Juan.
The contrast between the late nineteenth century machinations of Strauss and the felicitous simplistic charm of Mozart were immediately apparent during the opening bars of the master’s Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major, K595. No matter that the advance programme booklet had advertised No 21, this rendition of No 27 from Maria João Pires and Chailly was an idyllic filling between the two Strauss works. Here was an instance of two musical minds on the same wavelength, while each member of the reduced Gewandhausorchester ensemble contributed to deliver a heavenly whole. If any piece can be both simple and complex, then K595 fills that yardstick; there are never too many notes. Whilst Strauss makes the chromaticism patently obvious, Mozart cleverly disguises it, and in this his last piano concerto, knowing that nothing stands still, he looks forward. Pires clearly has a deep understanding of this and has the technique to convey it to her audience: engaging, yet never over-flamboyant, her hands and fingers do the talking, something that comes from being a young septuagenarian. Many in the Symphony Hall were on the edge of their seats hanging on to every note: the opening Allegro notable for her conversations with the orchestra, chasing one another around the keys; the Larghetto showing how joy and pain are never far away, Pires exuding both with great feeling; the final joyous Allegro with its theme similar to K.596, the children’s song Komm, Lieber Mai (was Mozart aware this was his last concerto and would be his last Spring?) complete with wonderful cadenza and transitional phrases. Poetry indeed!
In Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Op 40, the composer specifies a minimum of sixty-four strings for an acceptable performance and as the Leipzig players took to the platform after the interval it was clear that this criteria would be met. In fact the programme lists some sixty-seven in that section, and together with augmented instrumentalists all-round, this was not going to be just ‘acceptable’: as it turned out it was at different times, both electrifying and compassionate. Although the work is through composed, its six distinct sections (as initially spelt out by the composer) help trace this hero’s musical biography. Who is this hero Strauss portrays with intrepidity and humour? If the initial The Hero section was anything to go by, the interpretation of Chailly depicted him as a pulsating character, ostentatious, and never open to compromise, more Nietzsche’s Superman than autobiographical (the composer having been described as somewhat dreamy and easy going). In between the challenges issued and their vigorous resistive response, Chailly produced some magnetic pauses. A macho lifestyle had begun. The woodwind players of the Gewandhausorchester produced some amazing squawks and squeals to caricature the mocking laughter of Strauss’ critics in The Hero’s Adversaries; aided by the trombones and the bass and tenor tubas, they sounded a particularly spiteful and vindictive bunch and here the autobiographical aspect of the piece was present. But our hero was made of stern stuff and if any help was needed against such vociferous columnists, his wife was there to add her support in the third named section The Hero’s Companion.
Musicologist Stephen Johnson has attributed Strauss with ‘My wife’s a bit rough, but she’s what I need’. Well, there was nothing ‘rough’ about the violin of leader Frank-Michael Erben, radiating a tenderness in the three loving themes Strauss gave his partner; their sonority was interspersed with virtuosic cadenzas to demonstrate the complete spectrum of sound from Erben’s instrument. His silky glissandi, plus some antagonistic double and triple stopping, went a long way to fulfil the numerous descriptive instructions on Strauss’ score – from charm to frivolity. Three off-stage trumpets heralded The Hero’s Battle Ground, a metaphor for the composer’s own personal struggles. And what a fracas Chailly and his orchestra broadcast; naturally the percussion make a major contribution to the clangorous exchanges, but the attack on their instruments by the double basses typified the involvement of the players as a whole, once described as musical chaos. The Hero’s Works of Peace brought relief, a recapitulatory reverie including an early recall of Don Quixote, Chailly seamlessly weaving a magnificent tapestry from it and his other tone poems. The final The Hero’s Withdrawal from the World received an elegiac tone, a Straussian mix of potency and poetic melody, a serene conclusion, perhaps a portrait of the composer’s desire use his music to escape from life.
The three items provided a five star concert of intensity and poetry.