Strauss @ 150 - Part 2 Manchester
On 23rd January the Halle Orchestra and BBC Philharmonic got together, as they do on some occasions, for an all Strauss programme at the Bridgewater Hall; the second in the city's Strauss's Voice series. Their combined forces tackled two Strauss works of monstrous size - the Festival Prelude and the Alpine Symphony with some attractive Strauss songs in between. I attended this concert but reheard it via the BBC website.
The Festival Prelude, Festliches Präludium, Op.61, written in 1913 demands a huge orchestra and a phalanx of brass on and off stage and a meaty organ part. It was written for the opening of Vienna's new Konzerthaus on 19 October that year and to be followed by Beethoven's Ninth: not to be upstaged by the Ode to Joy Strauss pulled out the big guns (though I wonder why he didn't put in a choir as well). The forces required for this showcase may be one reason why it is rarely performed (and not much recorded to boot) but I shouldn't shy away from noting that although it is put together with mighty dimensions, the musical material is not memorable - though never shoddy. Time and time again it is the noise the damn thing makes that impresses. Mena conducted it - as he does with those interesting works that have yet to find their masterpiece status - with a straight face and a great deal of care, but without restraint. Surely that latter quality s essential in this kind of work by Strauss. It is a huge test of ensemble and the combined orchestra came out of it well. The audience, each forced several centimetres back in their seats by the sheer power of the sound, were rightly appreciative. I doubt it will be played again in Manchester for a long time. It was nice to hear the Bridgewater Hall organ (by Marcussen and Son) in full song - it's moody, religious overtones in Also Sprach Zarathustra were merely delicate colour in the huge orchestra compared to the fortefortissimo solo with opens the Prelude - a fuller tone than I remember.
Next came four Strauss songs - two from the Op 33 set and the two that for the Op 44 pair - asymmetrically split by the interval. Three songs were allotted to the wonderful English baritone Roderick Williams and after the break William Dazeley also a baritone gave us Nächtlicher Gang
Lied: Op.44, No.1: "Notturno" (Hoch hing der Mond) - premiered in 1900. The last time I heard Roderick Williams sing was a TV broadcast of the First Night of the 2013 Proms season in Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony (noted here). This song reminds me a little of the slow movement of that work "On the Beach at Night Alone" and Williams intoned it's slow, dark opening superbly. It's a song which is uneasy, wandering in the dark. The text by Richard Dehmel. I could write about it but there's a very detailed account here which is excellent, written by Paul Thomason. It builds to a dramatic turns and it sounds at times more like Schonberg than Strauss and has more drama, modernism and punch than you'd expect from Strauyss of this period - I was so glad to hear it done so well. A most tragic, ghastly story (a dream in Dehmel's original, which Strauss doesn't let on). Its a tough act to pull off and true enough Williams sometimes suffered from the Hall's acoustics but thankfully he stood firm to his role and
Lied: Op 33 No. 3 Hymnus ("Dass du mein Auge wecktest") to a text by Schiller - from a set of four songs written in 1896/7. It's mercifully brief - I found it's ardency in a bit cloying. And it is not untypical of Strauss' orchestral scoring at the time, though that in itself is sophisticated by most Lieder writing standards. Williams sang it with a hearty innocence. The real point for me was that this was almost from a different genre compared to the preceding song which was only a few years older.
Lied: Op.33 No. 4 Pilgers Morgenlied ("Morgennebel, Lila") text by Goethe. A more typically bracing opening by Strauss in Don Juan mode for this song. Williams was allowed full voice and the orchestration ia much more brisk. A welcome romp and much and well deserved applause for Williams and Mena and the orchestra.
Lied: Op.44, No. 2 Nächtlicher Gang ("Die Fahnen flattern") text by Ruckert - well what a turn up this was. Its a fearsome night - the natural and man made terrors of the Gothic all inflame both our ardent hero (who maybe dreaming) in search of his bride and the imaginative composer in turn. There's much in this song that matches the tone poem that follows it in the programme: it is frenzied, vivid, characterful and colourful writing - there's only one way to play it and Mena and his orchestra went at it full lick. There's also one helluva vocal part for Dazeley to negotiate: fiendish would be my estimation of the writing against a huge orchestra and at full ghoulish pelt. He sang it brilliantly and it was a treat to hear it so well realised. Later via iPlayer I was able to compare the two Op 44 works: they are I think, fantastic Strauss and I will seek them out for permanent reminders of this fantastic night.
Mena's Alpensinfonie was a wonder - full of incidental detail but that secure flow which comes with so many works he's conducted in Manchester and London. His steady line doesn't have a great deal of obvious pointing making - the incidental detail emerges on the journey. The excellence here comes I think from two things going in his favour - his assured sense of scale, style and rhythm and his orchestra sure sense of purpose and identity: more remarkable when this was two orchestras merged). I have heard the Alpensinfonie in concert and many broadcasts - it has never sounded this sweet. The combined forces gelled well, the BBC recording was a wonder of engineering balance.
The reading was seamless and tended to underplay some of the effects that Karajan's recording (a milestone in the history of this work) over-emphasised. The huge strings section was never over-emphatic - a blight in much Strauss conducting but was heard and was at times remarkably quiet. The combined Halle and BBC Philharmonic winds and brass were instruments of subtle voicing - the woodwind principals worked well in Strauss' moments of repose and reflection. Mena brought a hushed intimacy to the moments around the summit and a terribly effective stillness prior to the storm. The huge percussion section did well in the storm. The brass were exceptional - trumpets shone through and for myself I especially prized a trombone section that sounded like trombones not horns. Afterwards in the pub the bass trombone modestly eschewed praise but the bass brass were a tremendous bedrock of sound for the whole work. Inevitably there were a few squeaks and flubs but nothing dreadful and for the most part the audience sat agog.
At the time I said something special had happened that night - not least because I think you'd have to wait a long time to hear an Alpensinfonie that was as well paced and nuanced as that one - but also in a display of orchestral commitment that I just don't hear in the London orchestras. The BBC Philharmonic and Halle have hectic schedules just like the musicians in London but this was a united orchestra made form two distinct groups. I would still rather go hear music in Manchester than London and when it's music making of this quality someone ought to be preserving it.