Richard Strauss’s 150th-anniversary falls this year – he was born on 11 June 1864. Kicking off proceedings (after a ten-minute delay due to a missing trombonist) for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s celebrations was this mainly-Strauss affair, but to open was the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845), an orgiastic and sensual piece which in many ways foretells Strauss’s own take on such matters. What a pity that Philippe Jordan, for all his gesticulating, barely mustered any drive from the orchestra, which was on autopilot throughout this and Strauss’s Don Juan. The notes were there but not much more. The latter (1888) draws on a version of the lothario’s life in a play by Paul Heyse and a verse-drama by Nikolaus Lenau – our hero experiencing every single moment to the fullest. Jordan’s micro-managed approach sapped the free-thinking hero’s liberty. Only towards the end did the kaleidoscopic writing begin to take life, and the Don’s demise (death is more interesting than life, he muses), whilst sudden, was effectively contrasted with the ebullient sword-fight that leads to it. Earlier in the piece, oboist Christopher Cowie’s contribution had been meltingly seductive.
Much more successful was Jordan and the Philharmonia’s interaction with Angela Denoke. Her colouring of the vocal lines was ravishing. ‘Das Rosenband’ was dispatched wistfully, whilst in ‘Ruhe Meine Seele’, the Philharmonia's strings wonderfully dark and foreboding, Denoke searched out a beautifully contrasting calm and generated much mystery. ‘Cäcilie’ roused all participants, with its burning desire, the Philharmonia's strings now silkily ravishing, and distinguished by Denoke’s innate sympathy for the words.
A year ago this month at this venue Karita Mattila performed the ‘Closing Scene’ from Salome with another SBC resident ensemble, the London Philharmonic, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting, a reading of such visceral force that one feels a chill even now when recalling it. Denoke's Salome was a very different beast: less overt in her sexual desire for the head of John the Baptist, and more a Salome that flashes menacing sideway glances that are as cutting as an executioner’s blade. She compelled as much as Mattila had done, riding veering emotions with terrifying identification and cutting through the orchestral waves with ease. As during the preceding ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, Jordan and the Philharmonia were on suitably vivid form. The orchestra has much more Richard Strauss to come, not least with Christoph von Dohnányi (Ein Heldenleben) and Lorin Maazel (Also sprach Zarathustra and An Alpine Symphony, tantalisingly paired in one concert, and Till Eulenspiegel).