Anne Schwanewilms’ Glorious Singing Outshines Poorly Focused Conducting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, R. Strauss: Anne Schwanewilms (soprano); London Symphony Orchestra/Nikolaj Znaider (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 12.11.2015. (CC)

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C minor

Strauss Tod und Verklärung; Closing scene from Capriccio 

Soile Isokoski was the intended soloist in the final item of this concert, the closing scene from Strauss’ opera Capriccio. In the event, an upper respiratory tract infection forced her to withdraw, enabling the spotlight to fall on Anne Schwanewilms, a singer of great and deserved respect in this repertoire. Most recently Schwanewilms impressed me in a recital of Mahler, Liszt and Richard Strauss at the Wigmore Hall in March 2014.

In fact, Schwanewilms was simply magnificent. One can’t help but wonder if it was a measure of the respect the orchestra holds for her that the LSO’s experienced co-principal horn, Timothy Jones, took over the chair from his colleague Vittorio Schiarone (a name new to me, and clearly a player who on the showing of the rest of the concert is solid and reliable but little more). Schiarone, interestingly, stayed on stage to bump for Jones in this final item. The solo horn passages in the extended orchestral opening to this segment were pure excellence, marked not only by accuracy of both pitch and slur but also by exemplary phrasing. It was in fact the perfect complement to Schwanewilms’ stunningly pure, powerful voice, a sound in itself perfectly Straussian. Schwanewilms’ tuning was also impeccable, but what shone out like a laser beam was her clear and intuitive understanding of the import of the Countess’s final moments in the opera.

The outpourings of the central part of the excerpt revealed a true Strauss soprano. In the full voice of the later stages Schwanewilms was simply mesmeric; yet her unfolding of “Du Spiegelbild” was as delicate as a thread of spun gold.

All of which is a lot for the rest of the concert to live up to, and unfortunately that was far from the case. Znaider, who accompanied well if not in inspired fashion in Capriccio, is known first and foremost as a violinist and his conducting style, rather stiff, seems to imply a rather awkward transition from solo spotlight to podium. The Beethoven Fifth that occupied the first half, conducted from memory, was generally rather flat; in particular the Andante con moto was undistinguished despite several sterling solo contributions (especially from bassoonist Rachel Gough). There was much to enjoy on a purely orchestral level, the scampering virtuoso set of double-basses in the third movement, for example, but as a whole the interpretation failed to cohere. Climaxes were undeniably exciting, but a sense of mystery in the transition to the finale was almost completely lacking.

Also conducted from memory, Znaider’s interpretation of Strauss’ masterpiece, Tod und Verklärung, similarly failed to penetrate the music’s surface. The opening was well-controlled and atmospheric; but the oboe solo early on was hardly a shaft of light and the bright LSO brass seemed to glare too much at climactic points. The full potency of the death moment was sapped (and, pardon the pun, there’s no coming back from that). A clue, perhaps, came from some slightly messy trumpet contributions – a sign, perhaps, of the orchestra’s opinion of the conductor? There was a more fundamental flaw at work here: the organic growth of the Transfiguration was missing, the close not quite radiant. At best, this performance was a near miss; the Beethoven was not even that. Thank goodness for Schwanewilms.

Colin Clarke

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