Given the familiarity of most of the works being performed at this year’s Proms in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, one can’t help but feel that an opportunity to present more of the composer’s neglected works has been missed. It would have been good to have been able to hear the tone poem Aus Italien (last performed at the Proms in 1910), or the operas Feuersnot or Die ägyptische Helena (neither ever presented at the Proms). This concert did, however, provide the chance to hear the early Burleske from 1886, a work that until recently was a rarity in the concert hall, as well as the more frequently heard Tod und Verklärung.
Both Burleske and Tod und Verklärung were originally premiered at a concert conducted by Strauss himself in 1890. Unlike the premiere under Strauss, however, this concert had Tod und Verklärung as the opening work, a choice that involved the very quiet start of the tone poem being heard without any form of warm up. Fortunately, the audience settled quickly and the refined playing of BBC National Orchestra of Wales was rewarded with rapt attention from start to finish. Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård led a well characterized account of the score, impetuous and exciting in the faster music earlier on, dedicated and spacious in the affirmative music of the transfiguration.
Burleske, a work for piano and orchestra, was composed when Strauss was 21 and bears the influence of Brahms, Liszt and Chopin. Strauss was initially doubtful about the quality of his youthful inspiration but later grew to appreciate its virtues and included it in the final concert he conducted in London in 1947. A measure of the quality and conviction of the performance by Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi was that the Burleske in no way seemed an anticlimax when heard after the greater sophistication of Tod und Verklärung. Indeed, it almost came across as the more interesting work. Piementosi’s terrific interpretation was matched by an exceptionally alert and vibrant accompaniment from Søndergård and the orchestra.
After the interval, Piemontesi delivered a similarly exceptional interpretation of Mozart’s Rondo in A for Piano and Orchestra, his playing airy, limpid and totally compelling. Once again, Søndergård proved an ideal accompanist. As an encore, Piemontesi offered the 11th Variation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata K284, a performance more beautiful than words can describe.
The final work of this generous concert was Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, composed in the years following World War One (the centenary of the start of the conflict being another of the themes of this year’s Proms). Søndergård conducted an atmospheric and moving account of this compelling symphony, the orchestra sounding fully inside Nielsen’s individual soundworld. The mournful clarinet solo that gently leads the first movement to its close was given an especially affecting performance by Robert Plane. Sadly, the breathtaking silence that separates the two movements, a moment of the deepest contemplation, was brought to a jarring close by an outburst of applause, easily the most unthinking and intrusive of any concert I’ve ever attended. Elsewhere, there were times when Søndergård’s interpretaton might have benefited from a little more fire and abandonment, but otherwise this was a strong achievement from all concerned.
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