United Kingdom Elgar, Strauss and Brahms: Diana Damrau (soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 3.3.2018. (AS)
Elgar – Overture, In the South (Alassio) Op.50
Strauss – Vier leztze Lieder
Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
In translation the beginning of the text of ‘Spring’, the first of Strauss’s Four Last Songs reads, ‘In half-light I waited, dreamed all too long of trees in blossom……’. And so on. A potent but quietly soft atmosphere is evoked, which gently develops as the subject of the poem experiences the approach of spring. How disconcerting it was, therefore, to experience a fairly forthright delivery of this song by Diana Damrau, the voice soaring into its upper register with, dare I say such a thing, a squally tone quality and inappropriately rapid vibrato. There was nothing soft-natured about the singing, and Damrau’s delivery seemed more appropriate to that of a Wagner heroine. Matters did improve slightly as the cycle progressed: there was a little more sympathy in the singer’s rather generalised response to the sense of regret at the passing of summer in ‘September’, but still some insensitive shrillness in the higher notes. A sense of over-brightness continued throughout the remaining songs, however, and more pleasure was to be gained in Pappano’s beautiful shaping of the orchestral part, which was adorned by some eloquent solo playing by the first horn, David Pyatt, and by the LPO’s leader Peter Schoeman. The audience’s response to Damrau’s performance was understandably a little tepid.
There was a time years ago when there was a tendency for performances of Elgar’s orchestral music to be rather slow and stolid. That this fashion has passed is partly due to the efforts of conductors who have grown up musically away from the influence of the older British knights. Antonio Pappano, a modern British knight who did not however spend his most important formative years on British soil, has gained a fine reputation as an Elgarian, and this was certainly confirmed in his superlative performance of In the South. From the very first notes he drove the music along not just at an excitingly fast tempo, but with superb energy and vitality and seething passion. In this context the succeeding group of reflective melodies, tenderly played, made for a striking contrast. Some commentators have rather looked down on the repeated sequences which evoke the tramping, brutal Roman legions, but they sounded very dramatically effective on this occasion, and the principal viola, David Quiggle, deserves a word of praise for his affectionate delivery of the innocent little folksong that highlights another reflective passage in this wonderful work.
The performance gave rise to high expectations of Pappano’s Brahms in the second half of the concert, and these were fulfilled. The first movement, with its tricky triple rhythm, must be difficult for a conductor to bring off. Pappano conducted mostly in ones but subdivided his beat into threes where the need seemed to be, and he was very successful in conveying the lyrical quality of the music, its shape and its structure – except that, rather unusually these days, he didn’t play the exposition repeat. In the second movement the emphasis was on the dignified, grave aspect of the music, and there was impressive depth of expression though the use of a just slightly slower basic tempo than is the norm. The opening sweetness of the Allegretto was delightfully realised, with the joyous and then the serious little episodes in the middle of the movement nicely pointed. Despite a quickish basic tempo in the finale there was still a good element of warmth in the playing, nothing hectic or striving for effect, and a certain speeding up in the coda didn’t go too far.
Altogether, a refreshingly thoughtful performance.
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