A cocktail mixing Strauss and Mozart is an hazardous affair – which may explain why the Gewandhaus Orchester’s performance of three Strauss works and the Mozart Clarinet Concerto at the Barbican risked slipping into disarray at some points. Whilst Riccardo Chailly immersed ferocity into his executions of these works, it was attention to the individual sections that was lacking. During great works of music in which these supporting players – little motifs on woodwind, brass, and lower strings – play an important role, gems of details lost their brilliance despite the overall fiery effect.
The most successful outcome of the evening was the rendering of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, where Martin Fröst layered his phrases with a playfulness that slyly made small alterations to the pace or style of a repeated phrase. While his tempos were at times a little liberal for a work of this conservative demeanour, he gave it an idiosyncratic character found in few other interpretations.
The Gewandhaus Orchester was at its tightest and its most obedient under Martin Fröst although the ambience of the strings did border on a subdued and bland characteristic. Risks became far more apparent when the size of the ensemble doubled. Chailly took Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung (‘Death and Transfiguration’) with a careful and at times rather restrained approach. The shifts in volume representing the stark contrast between death and its antithesis, transfiguration; the changes both in tempo and in mood were noteworthy. Yet there was something in the quickness of diminuendi and monotonous, short-lasting tremolos that rarely changed in character and gave this piece a style antagonistic to the nature we associate with Strauss. Nuances such as call and response and the peripheral motifs on woodwind that comprise the indispensable polyphony were lost amidst the storm. The overall impression was that we were thrown into a counterpoint a little closer to the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven than to the twisted and experimental, eerie signs of Strauss.
Bereft of other instrumental sections to protect them, the strings struggled with independence in the sombre masterpiece, Metamorphosen. What we heard was not so much the dissolution of an era and the images of plummeting debris in Nazi Munich that Strauss sought to manifest, as much as disagreement when it came to styles. Tone was not vital here. Individually, the sections were unruly; when it came to ‘cellos, the sound was like that of a soloist performing a sonata with accompaniment. The vast majority of contrapuntal harmonies that constitute this memorable work were lost amidst what sounded like a quarrel where the different sides only occasionally see the others’ viewpoints. At one point a violinist’s brisk attack bore a majestic jubilance reminiscent of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’. Most surprisingly, when Chailly had to prompt the final resonating cello chord that tells us that the bell is tolling – it tolled twice. Because the cellist played the chord too softly, Chailly motioned for it to be played again. Thus the omen symbolising death had its announcement twice.
The final Strauss work, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, glued back some of the strings that had by then collapsed into dissolution. What was especially impressive was the bold divergence that the texture took between the loud and flippant daring noises and the muffled, subdued, quiet portions – often on a solo flute – that followed. The build-ups of crescendos and the twists in rhythm were more accurate and predetermined and yet simultaneously conveyed the craziness around the prankster in the story of the basis for this piece.
This was a motley evening in its structure: unfortunately, it was variation in the quality and not the musical interpretation which supplied this multi-faceted quality. Without some emphasis on underlining themes and melodies within the undercurrent of his works, the counterpoint of Strauss’ masterpieces came out as a damaged entity.