Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Philharmonic Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall, London

19 October 2007

For her second guest appearance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra this week, Simone Young chose a programme of Richard Strauss.

First was Metamorphosen, written by the 80 year old Strauss in response to the physical and spiritual ruination of Germany during World War Two.

Orchestrated for 23 solo strings, its chamber music sonorities are not ideally heard in a space as large as the Royal Festival Hall.

In addition, despite committed playing from individual players, Strauss’s elegiac melodies lacked emotional projection and string textures were insufficiently delineated. As a result, the work failed to make much of an impact during its 27 minute span.

The quality of the music-making took a step up in Strauss’s Four Last Songs, despite the last minute cancellation due to illness by soprano Nina Stemme. Fortunately, Anne Schwanewilms was available at short notice to take her place. Schwanewilms has made something of a specialisation of the Four Last Songs and has already given performances this year in Madrid, Amsterdam, Stuttgart and Bonn. Tonight, her bright, clear soprano floated beautifully over a warm, glowing accompaniment from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The horn solo in September was particularly beautiful and made up for the rather tentative violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen. Overall, I felt there was a slight lack of the Straussian rapture ideally to be found in the Four Last Songs, but in the main it was a satisfying performance.

The final work of the evening, Also sprach Zarathustra, was for me the most successful. The famous introduction was very spacious and tremendously commanding. (This was despite the fact that the Royal Festival Hall’s organ has yet to be reinstated and an electronic substitute is currently being used.) Young was also impressive in the more dynamic sections of the score, such as Of Joys and Passions and The Convalescent, where she encouraged playing of great ardour from the London Philharmonic. This isn’t to say the performance was ideal, however. Of Science, for example, could have had greater mystery, and in The Dance Song, the violin solos by the orchestra’s leader, Boris Garlitsky, lacked rhythmic precision and sounded surprisingly scratchy. For the most part, however, it was a powerful and exciting interpretation.

Her performance in tonight’s concert suggests that, at her best, Simone Young is able to draw powerful and idiomatic playing from an orchestra. Where nuance was required, however, there was often something missing. This may simply be as a result of the unfamiliarity between Young and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Young has been General Manager of the Hamburg State Opera and Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra since 2005, and based on tonight’s evidence, it would be very interesting to hear the results where time has allowed a more substantial relationship to be built between conductor and orchestra.

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