The second of Fabio Luisi’s LSO-debut concerts gave us a most odd juxtaposition of works, Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Beethoven’s Mass in C. Heldenleben was given with a different ending; to hear this work shorn of its final eight bars was a surreal experience. We had instead the musical equivalent of a cinematic fade-out, the work closing with a whimper rather than in a glorious blaze of brass. Strauss had originally ended the work quietly but had added the familiar ending prior to publication; however, there is evidently a letter from him written later in life saying that he preferred the first ending, which, for example, Sawallisch recorded for EMI with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In the event Luisi’s was not the most satisfying of readings, earnest to a point. As one would expect from the LSO it was excellently played, the hero striding manfully forth at the outset and with great swathes of string tone in the more voluptuous sections, but the slower ones, notably those with Gordan Nikolitch’s violin-portrait of the composer’s wife Pauline, which dragged, unpredictable whimsicality replaced by an all-purpose ‘expressiveness’ but which missed the implicit irony. Much the same could be said of Luisi’s conducting. Dynamics were consistently a couple of notches too high with the net result that it was frequently difficult to see the wood for the trees and, lacking visceral razor-sharp responses to moments such as the furious string-dominated lead into the ‘Epilogue’ (Christine Pendrill’s cor anglais solo genuinely affecting here), the overall effect was strangely muted.
The Beethoven sported an excellent and well-balanced solo vocal quartet, Anna Stéphany outstanding and blending beautifully with Christiane Oelze, and with Matthew Rose commanding. The London Symphony Chorus, here about 100-strong and trained (this time) by Matthew Hamilton, was a thoroughly responsive group, singing with zest and control even though some of Luisi’s faster tempos in the ‘Credo’ did few favours. Whilst there was much to enjoy – Luisi is singer-friendly and for the most part elicited an impressive choral response (the stabbing ‘Crucifixus’ and the mystery of the ‘Sanctus’ were both notably well-realised) – this reading was far from the last word and there are greater depths to be found in the ‘Benedictus’, here taken too flowingly.
The Mass was commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy and is Janus-like in the sense that it is both a pendant to Haydn’s last six Masses whilst at the same time forward-looking and full of Beethovenian drama. For someone standing apart from conventional religion, Beethoven’s setting is surprisingly fervent and affirmative. It was too ‘modern’ for the Prince: “But my dear Beethoven, what is this you have done now?”. In the concluding ‘Dona nobis pacem’ one sensed that the words might equally have been “give us Freedom” rather than “Peace”, Fidelio to the fore.