This was second of two concerts conducted by François-Xavier Roth entitled “After Romanticism”, an occasional series intended to highlight the changes occurring in music at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a theme that’s been presented in one form or another a number of times in recent years in London, but the works on offer in this concert made for a satisfying programme, if not quite so much so in actual performance.
Acting in the place of an overture was Webern’s Im Sommerwind, an early orchestral work dating from just before the composer’s period of study with Schoenberg. The score’s luxuriant orchestration is a world away from the sparse textures which became a feature of Webern’s compositional style just a few years later. The music of Strauss, especially Till Eulenspiegel, is obviously an influence, but the work also benefits from a pastoral freshness that sounds slightly Czech. The work’s youthful vigour was strongly realised by the London Symphony Orchestra in this performance.
Berg’s Violin Concerto was his last completed work, an eulogy to the recently deceased Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter from her marriage to the architect Walter Gropius. Soloist Renaud Capuçon gave a sensitive and refined performance, but wasn’t helped by an orchestral balance that featured some overloud brass in the final movement. The result was a rather cool rendition of Berg’s expressive and moving concerto.
In a talk given at the Royal Academy of Music the day before this concert, conductor Christian Thielemann spoke of Richard Strauss’ advice to young conductors to direct Salome and Elektra as if they were works by Mendelssohn. I felt that Roth’s performance of Ein Heldenleben might have benefited from the same advice. The introduction received a swift and passionate interpretation, but at times felt too loud. Strauss’ score rarely demands more than ff, but much of the playing seemed more like fff. The same was true of the next section, where the woodwinds depicting the Hero’s critics were decidedly aggressive rather than merely spiteful.
The LSO’s leader, Roman Simovic, gave a sensitive interpretation of the long and complex solo representing the Hero’s companion, with the volume of the orchestra scaled down accordingly. However, the “Hero at Battle” once again brought playing that was more forceful than exciting, with brass, upper woodwinds and percussion sounding particularly brash in the Barbican acoustic. The “Hero’s Works of Peace” brought playing that was transparent and well balanced, if a little on the cool side. However, the nostalgic duet for horn and violin towards the end of the work saw noticeably louder playing from the former, a pity when the playing of both was otherwise so eloquent. In summary, this was a performance that was never dull but in which the warmth and richness of Strauss’ score was only partially realised.