Strauss @ 150 - Part 1 Manchester

2014 is the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss' birth and the celebrations are happening across the musical world - catch some of the flavour on Twitter: @Strauss2014 .
In Manchester the Strauss's Voice celebrations supported by nine concerts, three orchestras and Salford City Council (kudos to them) is now in full swing.  My first Straussian blog of the year starts there.

The Halle orchestra under Nicolai Znaider ushered in the Festival at the Bridgewater Hall on 8th January in a mixed concert of Wagner, Strauss and Sibelius, with Strauss songs for bass sung by Brindley Sherratt, who stepped in at two days notice, and sang with great beauty and authority.

The two songs, Op 51 are from the periods either side of Salome and Symphonia Domestica.  Das Thal (The Valley) Op 51 #1, 1902, sets a poem by Johan Ludwig Uhland. This is a reflective, possibly maudlin', piece of Pastoralism about the central role of a homeland in the narrator's life and it's perpetual renewal against his own travails and mortality.  Sherratt's rich voice brought a touching quality to it beyond the words in a studied but never slow unfolding of the central figures link to the land.

Der Einsame (The Solitary/Lonely One) Op 51 #2 1906, is by Heinrich Heine, a short poem of monumentally portentous gloom, the singer intones of the darkness and gloom, even his lover's eyes don't sparkle any more, the abyss gapes at his feet etc you can imagine the rest.  It's a rare example of Strauss being seriously melancholic, with a bass voice and a darkly hued orchestra to match.  Again Sherratt brought great clarity and some finesse, and indeed so did the darkly cloloured Halle orchestra.

A week or so later on 18 January, Spanish conductor (and hero in these columns) Juanjo Mena took over the baton with his orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, for an all Strauss concert of Also Sprach Zarathustra, Drei Hymnen Op 71 with Soile Isokoski, and Don Quixote with Steven Isserlis as the knight of sorrowful countenance.

I've heard ASZ three times live previously, once with the Halle under, I think, Stanisław Skrowaczewski in Sheffield where the leader, Martin Milner had to leave the violin solo to his co leader when a string broke three or four notes in.  Second time was an uncomfortable performance also in Sheffield City Hall by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra which empty beyond the noise it made.  The third time was at the 2012 Proms with these forces, I wrote about that performance here.  At that time I said the orchestra were "concentrated, quiet but full toned and very sensitive", their playing was even finer this time.  The woodwinds have a sense of security and confidence that is beyond much of other orchestras I hear - a proper wind "band" listening to each other and working together.  Mena's reading is more remarkable for it's clean lines, deep understanding of the balances in this piece and fine control of a huge string section which could play at a whisper when necessary.  The ending was deeply felt by players and audience alike - Strauss' truly serious question was well revealed - how are we to decide between man and nature?  The opening was, alas, interrupted in it's transition to the second section by a lone, albeit enthusiastic, clapper right under the BBC microphones - just in case you're listening here and wonder if a performing seal was in the front row. This set a high standard for the rest of the series.

In the review of the Prom above you can read about the unfortunate performance of Strauss' Four Last Songs by a singer who wanted to soldier on despite not being in the best of health (incidentally she's back with these songs in this Manchester series - with the Halle orchestra).  In this concert, Mena had a struggle on his hands with that ravishing and renowned Straussian, Soile Isokoski.  This time her voice was defeated  - for those of us in the hall at least - by the BWH's deadly acoustic vacuum which sucks notes lacking power up to the roof.  On the radio the Drei Hymnen Op 71 (Three Hymns) were well enough balanced, Isokoski's mature understanding of these works came through clearly - though not loudly.

Michael Kennedy in his programme note rightly points to these hymns as a precursor, if not a direct model for Strauss' Four Last Songs.  They are, I suspect, even more difficult to sing and the source material for the later work is much better.  Poor Holderlin, the epitome of the mad, destitute Romantic poet who died in penury unaware he was heir to a small fortune - wrote simple, wide-eyed verse of great beauty.  But these three poems (written broadly around 1800) are from the height of the German Romantic movement and I think could be accounted as neo-classical were it not for Strauss' decidedly late Romantic scoring. "Hymn to Love", "Return to the Homeland" and "Love" provide such wonderful opportunities for Strauss to wheel out his armoury of naturalistic musical allusions and quotes from his own earlier works. It's hard to think how these might have been received at the time by audiences especially when Strauss's compositional output was drying up.  They have a nostalgic feel even now. The bigger point here is that without this outing how would we have known them? Their glories can be revealed on CD but so much better that they are revealed when someone sits down and decides to programme them. It's a great idea to intersperse songs in each concert.
Steven Isserlis is what I would call a characterful cellist - ideal for the interpretation of Strauss take on Cervantes novel - he's played it often and recorded it twice.  The last time I heard Don Quixote live Truls Mork was decidely low key, which I wrote about here and that caused problems. This time the right ingredients were in place - the orchestra in full voice and body, Mena in fine tuned control and orchestral soloists of high quality.  All that was needed was an original and enticing view of Cervantes characters, transmogrified by Strauss into one of music's great sound portraits.  It is a big ask and it has alluded many.  On record I stick firmly to Pierre Fournier's recording on DG and take a view that if you're going to listen to anything conducted by Karajan it might as well be his favourite score.  It turns out Isserlis' Don is a deal more enjoyable, a tad more impetuous, sometimes uncertain and just as searching as any I've heard.  His energy was unquenchable - in folly he was resolute, but equally sincere in love and prayer.  Here was a lively Don bursting forth on his quest and only subdued when the end approached and matching my preference for an ambiguous end.

It wasn't just Isserlis with ideas aplenty, Steven Bernard as Sancho Panza and the rest of the orchestra indulged in a deal more characterisation of the piece than I expected and it made for a jolly and fiery and passionate experience. The big orchestral set-pieces - the sheep, the flight through the air and the duel were high energy affairs; they came off well.  By contrast, and most pleasing for me, the moments of calm introspection were beautifully handled and given time, air, lightness and space.  I find the end of Don Quixote so very moving - as with the rest of this story it is hard to know who is doing the imagining - the listener or the character.  As we all tilt at windmills we should perhaps take Don Quixote as a cautionary tale.  But each time we find Strauss (and Cervantes) holding up a mirror to out lives mischieviously, there's a bit of Strauss at least that is determinedly humane.  It is that element that unlocks this piece from it's pistorialism and keeps this piece fresh and it is that element which thsi performance held sensitively in the balance.  We can take a life lesson from this story, Strauss, so very well served by Isserlis and Mena in this reading, offers us reassurance in our folly too.

Still to come - two more concerts and the first two operas in Radio 3's Strauss year bringing us all 15 of Strauss' works for the opera house


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