Following on from the bicentenary celebrations of Richard Wagner in 2013, this year brings the anniversary of another great German composer, Richard Strauss, who was born 150 years ago in June. Among the London orchestras, the main contribution to the anniversary comes from the Philharmonia, not inappropriately given that the newly-formed orchestra was conducted by Strauss himself during a visit to London in 1947 and featured in the premiere of the Four Last Songs under Furtwängler in 1950.
With the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen on sabbatical until June, this first concert in the Strauss series was led by the Philippe Jordan, who has been a guest conductor with the orchestra since 2004. In what was presumably a parting nod to last year’s Wagner bicentenary, the concert opened with a performance of the Tannhäuser Overture. Here, as later in the concert, Jordan’s conducting style was theatrical, almost flamboyant, involving high swooping arcs of the baton, a crouch worthy of an Olympic skier and occasional foot stomping on the podium. One can’t help but wonder if such gestures provide much benefit to the orchestra. The overture’s opening section was certainly sonorous and Jordan brought excitement to the Venusberg music, but the performance lacked something of the Philharmonia’s normal flexibility and polish. However, with a significant number of guest principals featuring on the list of players for this concert, it was perhaps unfair to expect the orchestra to sound the same for Jordan as it might have done for Salonen.
The rest of the concert was dedicated to Strauss, commencing with six of his songs for soprano and orchestra. These were performed with affection and insight by Angela Denoke. The playfully romantic Der Rosenband (The Rose Garland) opened the sequence, followed by the beautiful but sombre Ruhe, meine Seele (Rest, my soul). The dark and intense orchestration provided by Strauss in 1948, more than half a century after the song was originally conceived, was given a stirring performance by Jordan. The luminous Morgen! (Tomorrow! ) brought a moving violin solo from guest leader Amyn Merchant and magically soft playing from the horns.Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland (Three Holy Kings from Eastern Lands) provided genuine Straussian rapture in the performance, although arguably the celeste was slightly too loud. Denoke’s interpretation of the two final songs, the dreamily romantic Freundliche Vision (A Pleasant Vision) and the ardent Cäcilie once again benefited from her clear articulation and sympathy with the music, with good support from Jordan and the orchestra.
Jordan’s interpretation of Strauss’ Don Juan was urgent and dramatic, with vivid playing from the orchestra. Not everything about this performance worked, however. Despite the quality of the woodwind playing, tension ebbed in the love scene, and the orchestral balance to often gave undue prominence to the brass. Climaxes were undeniably exciting, but the interpretation was only partially successful in conveying the measure of this early masterpiece.
The final part of the concert brought a pairing of the Dance of the Seven Veils and Final Scene from Salome. In the dance, Jordan summoned playing of remarkable transparency and vibrancy from the orchestra. The sultry contribution of flautist Kenneth Smith was especially memorable. Jordan’s focus on detail, however, occasionally resulted in the piece seeming more like a concerto for orchestra than a dance. Matters improved with the arrival of Denoke for the final scene. Jordan’s conducting brought an expressiveness and emotional charge that had been missing before whilst encouraging ever more virtuosity and clarity from the orchestra. Denoke was occasionally eclipsed by the sheer volume of sound from behind her, but her singing was ardent, focused and often very moving. The passage “Hättest du mich angesehn, du hättest mich geliebt” (“Had you looked upon me, you would have loved me”) was especially affecting, and the final climax was electrifying.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.