Radiant Harteros in Strauss Lieder followed by a Chunk of Wagner

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Webern, R. Strauss, Wagner: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Anja Harteros (soprano) Tonhalle Zurich, 27.10.2016. (JR)


Webern Im Sommerwind – Idyll for large orchestra

Strauss – Lieder: Die heiligen Drei KönigeMeinem KindeWaldseligkeitRuhe, meine SeeleMorgen!Zueignung

Wagner – Extracts from Götterdämmerung

The name Anton Webern always manages to fill me, and I am sure many others, with some trepidation. Perhaps it was the very mention of his name which kept audience numbers somewhat low for this concert (though some possibly muddled Webern with middle-of-the-road Weber – one has to look twice). I need not have feared. Im Sommerwind, was composed in 1904, when the composer was a mere 20 years old and before his studies with Schoenberg; it is therefore worlds apart from the composer’s later sparse and brief compositions.

Schoenberg however felt that in Im Sommerwind Webern had reached the end of the road stylistically. It was all too reminiscent of Mahler’s early symphonies, of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Webern never had the work performed, or even published, but kept it as a memento of his youth. It was unearthed, quite literally, from the composer’s garden in Vienna and then discovered by a musicologist some fifteen years after the composer’s death. The work provided a perfect opener for this concert.

You have to listen very hard to detect anything of the extreme form of minimalism Webern would employ in his later, most characteristic works.

Only after a few bars, Runnicles stopped the piece, turned round, apologised (in German) to the audience, and started again. It left everyone wondering what had occurred, a completely wrong entry perhaps which had put or would put everything out of kilter? I suspect very few in the audience knew the answer and my spies in the orchestra have not told me, either out of courtesy to a miscreant or lack of their own knowledge. Anyhow, second time round went smoothly and the piece proved a very competent example of late Romanticism. Rather like looking at early Picasso paintings, it shows an almost premature and precocious mastery of the genre before the artist moves on to explore new territory.

After the Webern, Harteros appeared in a long black dress, the top studded with shiny sequins. This was most appropriate, as almost all the songs she chose mentioned the golden sunlight, twinkling stars or bright amethysts. Harteros’ pure and sparkling soprano, with a creamy middle register, is just perfect for Strauss Lieder and the reception she received at the end was just one notch below a standing ovation. Her German diction is, of course, perfect, her expression and stage presence always apposite as we savoured the texts of each song. The first was an amusing poem by Heinrich Heine: the three Kings search for baby Jesus, no-one knows where he is so they decide to follow a star, find Joseph’s house and enter to find an ox bellowing and a baby crying. The kings then decide to sing – what else?

The other songs, all with a touch of melancholy, all showed off the soprano voice which Strauss so adored and for which he wrote so perfectly. Harteros showed us why she is in such great demand on the world’s opera stages. Morgen! was simply exquisite, a real tear-jerker, complemented by the sweetness of First Concertmaster Andreas Janke’s violin – so good was it, Harteros gave it as her encore. Zueignung made a fine closing song. You can, it seems, have too much of a good thing. Runnicles’ accompaniment was masterful: incidentally one of the few left-handed conductors.

After the interval, we were fed part of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, leading seamlessly into ‘Siegfried’s Journey down the Rhine’, then into ‘Siegfried’s Death’ and before his corpse was cold we were into the ‘Immolation Scene’ where Brünnhilde throws herself into the Rhine and the flames of burning Valhalla while the Gods look down from Valhalla. I am no fan of bleeding chunks of any opera, but particularly not Wagner. I think you need to sit uncomfortably through four and half hours of unrelenting dialogue to be overcome by the glorious climaxes which (almost) only Wagner could write, such as in the Liebestod. The only disappointing part of this otherwise most enjoyable concert was that Harteros does not, as far as I know, sing Brünnhilde (and I hear she has even cancelled some Sieglindes), so we were deprived of a vocal accompaniment to the closing scene and a chance to hear her wonderful voice again. It did however give the orchestra an opportunity to play this wonderful music – which they cannot get to play too often – and lay on the volume. The brass in particular gave a fine account of themselves. Runnicles was roundly applauded and will certainly be making welcome annual visits to the Tonhalle.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment