Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia Orchestra/Mackerras @ Royal Festival Hall, London

10 April 2008

Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, composed in 1888, is an astonishing achievement for a 24 year old.

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Although his earlier works, such as Aus Italien and the First Horn Concerto, are interesting compositions that are occasionally heard in the concert hall, it was Don Juan that revealed Strauss’s genius – apparently fully formed to the world for the first time.

Not only are the melodies sumptuous, the orchestration highly imaginative and the climaxes thrillingly powerful, but it captures the very essence of the sexually charged hero described in Nikolaus Lenau’s 19th century poem.

Given that it was the first item on the programme, it was perhaps not surprising that the Philharmonia‘s interpretation under Sir Charles Mackerras seemed to take a little while to warm up. Although the opening was bright and racy, the Don’s blood did not boil with passion immediately, and the exquisite theme for oboe seemed to portray a remembered lover rather than the intoxication of a new one. However, the performance picked up excitement as it progressed, and with the horns resounding superbly, the final surge of passion before the hero’s death was excitingly projected.

Sixty years after the composition of Don Juan, Strauss completed his last major work, the valedictory Four Last Songs. They were premiered in London in 1950 by Kirsten Flagstad with tonight’s orchestra, the Philharmonia, conducted by Furtwngler. The songs, with their warm melodies and floating lines, show Strauss’s genius in writing for the female voice at its very peak.

This evening we heard an exquisite interpretation by Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn, whose soft, creamy vocal style perfectly matched the luminous orchestral accompaniment under Mackerras. If her voice occasionally seemed too intimate for the Festival Hall, it was nonetheless a performance which communicated an inner intensity which often eludes other performers. Most impressive of all was the final song, Im Abendrot, which brought a sense of benediction that was intensely moving. Mackerras and the orchestra deserve equal credit for the quality of the performance.

Anyone hoping for a performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony to match the quality of the Strauss would have been disappointed. Using a reduced size orchestra, Mackerras led a carefully structured and beautifully played account of the symphony which brought the originality of Beethoven’s sound world to life. However, it was a performance that was just a little tame in the first movement and rather placid in the Marcia funbre. The energy levels did rise in the finale, but the lack of antiphonal violins was a disadvantage, and the coda was not the stirring call to arms that it can be. Overall, this was a respectable performance but not a great one.

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