United Kingdom Strauss, Mahler: Rebecca Evans (soprano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Lothar Koenigs (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 10.1.2016. (PCG)
Strauss – Don Juan (1888)
Strauss – Four Last Songs (1948)
Mahler – Symphony No 4 (1900)
I was informed that this would be the final concert in which Lothar Koenigs would be conducting his Welsh National Opera orchestra in St David’s Hall, although he will continue to work with them in the opera house. It was a suitably high note on which to make an exit, the second concert in the St David’s ‘International Concert Series’ this season in which the players have made an extremely favourable impression. The opening of Strauss’s Don Juan is a challenge to both orchestra and conductor, with its uprushing strings always at risk of becoming blurred. Here they were spot on, and the textures throughout were always clear with even passages like the harp tremolos coming through in just the right proportion. I should in particular single out for mention the ‘Donna Anna’ oboe solo from Catriona McKinnon, beautifully moulded and expressively shaped; she deserved a solo call at the end. The programme notes by Sophie Rashbrook stated somewhat oddly that “prior to this piece, the young Strauss mainly wrote for small instrumental ensembles,” which seemed to overlook two four-movement symphonies, the tone-poem Macbeth, and the Violin Concerto, not to mention the substantial Aus Italien, all of them written for symphonic forces.
Equally poised was Rebecca Evans in the Four Last Songs, taking Strauss’s long phrases in sustained breaths and refining down her tone to a mere whisper in places. She took the opening Frühling at quite a fast speed, evidently anxious to avoid breaking the vocal line in mid-word as some sopranos feel the need to do; but the tempi in the later songs was more moderated, where Angus West on horn and the solo violin of Gaelle-Anne Michel entered fully into the mood of the poetry. In the final Im Abendrot Evans was simply superb, and I noted as the audience emerged into the bar at the interval that many listeners were dabbing discreetly at their eyes – as indeed they should. In the past I have complained about the failure of the WNO to provide texts and translations (as for example in their performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder in January 2014) and am pleased to note that somebody has taken note of this; we were given both German texts and translations of the Strauss and Mahler although something seemed to have gone astray in the translation of Eichendorff in the phrase “We must not our way in this solitude.”
I can recall the days before the Mahler revival in the 1960s when his Fourth Symphony was the most frequently performed of the composer’s scores – possibly because it demanded smaller orchestral forces than usual (no heavy brass at all), and only one solo voice as opposed to the chorus required for his other vocal symphonies. But I am not altogether sure that this actually did Mahler’s music any favours, since I continue to find it the least representative of his view that “the symphony should encompass the world.” The ideas in the first two movements are individual enough, but they are extended and developed for too long; and the third movement, a slow progress towards the ‘opening of Heaven’s gate’ in the final pages, lacks the assuredness of handling the stately procession that one finds in his slow movements from the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony onwards. But the orchestra under Lothar Koenigs produced a fine response even when Mahler’s inspiration seemed to linger too much by the wayside; and again Rebecca Evans was superb in the final movement, ideally reflecting Mahler’s instruction that the voice should sing “with childlike and serene expression, absolutely without parody.” The only point at which she faltered was at the line “Sankt Martha die Küchin muss sein” where the horns and trumpets produced a healthy mp rather than the pp and ppp that Mahler specifies in the score, and she had to suddenly produce a surge in volume (the following repeat of the phrase with flutes, clarinets and double-basses was perfect). A very minor blip in what was otherwise an excellent performance from everyone concerned, and the cheers from the near-capacity audience were well deserved.
Paul Corfield Godfrey