Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO/Elder @ Royal Festival Hall, London

24 January 2009

The first half of this imaginatively programmed concert celebrated two anniversaries, those of Mendelssohn (born 200 years ago this year) and Martinu (who died 50 years ago).

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

The second half brought a chance to hear Richard Strauss’s inspired but neglected tone poem, Sinfonia domestica.

The concert opened with Martinu’s rarely heard The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, a three movement orchestral work dating from 1955. The piece was inspired by the History of the True Cross frescoes that the composer had admired in the Italian town of Arezzo the previous year. Martinu’s scoring for large orchestra is rich and virtuosic, combining a sense of mystery, fantasy, and at times, a celebratory atmosphere. Sir Mark Elder and the London Philharmonic made a strong case for an undeservedly neglected work.

No doubt the main attraction for many in the audience was the opportunity to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Her playing is famous for its accuracy and depth of tone, but her interpretation of the Mendelssohn concerto was also notable for its prominent rubato and tempo changes, extremely quiet pianissimos, intense vibrato and an occasional underlining of the final note at phrase endings.

All this made me wonder whether the necessity of having to constantly revisit a relatively small number of great violin concertos is the cause of Mutter’s highly interventionist style. Whatever the reason, her approach all too often occluded rather than enhanced the essence of the Mendelssohn’s music. Elder and the orchestra were faithful accompanists, but this was ultimately Mutter’s performance, and a disappointing one.

The scheduling of a Strauss tone poem often means another performance of Also sprach Zarathustra, so the planners of this concert are to be commended for giving us a chance to hear his Sinfonia domestica (Domestic Symphony) instead. Strauss completed the work in 1903, shortly before commencing work on the opera Salome. As Elder explained in a five minute talk immediately before the performance, Strauss’s descriptions of household activity at points in the score long prevented the symphony from being taken seriously. In fact, it is one of his finest works, the continuous 45 minute span containing a highly imaginative slow movement and a brilliantly exuberant conclusion.

Given his verbal advocacy of the work, Elder’s performance didn’t always quite catch fire in the way that one might have hoped. However, the London Philharmonic Orchestra brought eloquent playing to Strauss’s complex score, with a particularly distinguished contribution from guest leader Carmine Lauri.

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