Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Der Rosenkavalier – Suite
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Barbican Hall, London
Saturday, May 12, 2012
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The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra continued its Barbican Centre residency with this Richard Strauss programme presided over by Mariss Jansons, the Amsterdam-based ensemble’s principal conductor since 2004.
Also sprach Zarathustra is a good first-half piece, its first couple of minutes now indelibly associated with Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are thirty or so further minutes of this Nietzsche-inspired symphonic poem. Those opening ‘Sunrise’ bars were not exaggerated in tempo or turned into a hi-fi spectacular, setting the scene for a patient performance, Jansons with and without baton and sometimes happy to ‘stand down’ as his Rolls-Royce orchestra glowingly unfolded the score; the music breathed and was illuminated from within. There was a depth and radiance to this absorbing account, a sense of relationship and direction underpinned by humanity rather than it being an extravaganza powered by the nearest electricity pylon. Leader Vesko Eschkenazy offered old-world charm in the violin solos, the chimes of the ‘Midnight Bell’ rang through vividly (for once), and the final bars of highs and lows were properly questioning and ambiguous. Earlier the double basses had quietly and distinctively growled for ‘Of Science and Learning’.
Were we expecting Jansons to conduct Metamorphosen? He didn’t. The interval was extended and when we returned to the Hall the necessary players were present. The lights dimmed, the music started – waved into life by Eschkenazy’s bow. From Zarathustra (1896), written by the inimitable and confident Strauss in his early-thirties, to Metamorphosen (1945), an outpouring by a now-81 composer disillusioned by World War Two is a big step. Strauss was distressed in particular by the Allied bombing of Dresden and other German cities and the destruction of opera houses. Formally a ‘study for 23 solo strings’, Metamorphosen is a deeply-felt elegy based on and leading to the ‘Funeral March’ of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. The principals and foremost string-players of the RCO gave us chamber-music writ somewhat large, the intricacy of the music held together skilfully, the flowing performance very affecting, passionate and moving as well as noble and indivisible.
Mariss Jansons returned for the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, the opera itself first performed in Dresden in 1911, the two World Wars yet to happen. The Suite (1945) is probably the handiwork of conductor Artur Rodziński with little or no reference to the composer and is an enjoyable 25-minute confection. Once again Jansons refused to force the music; we were treated to a richly evocative and expressive performance, with bite, swagger, seduction and tenderness when required. A duet between Eschkenazy and oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk was a moment to savour, and the famous ‘Trio’ was of ineffable beauty and sensitivity. With the final waltz-sequence the Concertgebouw musicians were swinging from the chandeliers!
Things were perhaps not quite right though – if only to the eye, never to the ear. While the orchestra members were shuffling paper for an encore (Jansons usually gives us one or three), the conductor resignedly shook his head at Eschkenazy. There would be no more music on this occasion. It had been a splendid concert though. The RCO returns to the Barbican Centre in a week’s time, on Sunday 20 May, for a matinee Bruckner 5 with Bernard Haitink.