Richard Strauss completed Metamorphosen in 1945, at the very end of World War Two, and it became an elegy for all the destruction wreaked on German culture, as much by Germany as by the Allies. Like Das Lied von der Erde it dwells on the transience of life, with the difference that the Mahler ends in a haze of benign acceptance, while the octogenarian Strauss in effect laments the death of Europe.
With the fifteen violinists and viola-players standing, the LSO group surrounded Simon Rattle, giving him direct contact with each player. The results were intense, and from the lower strings’ stealth in the opening, through the impassioned middle section, to the work’s goal, the fractured quote from ‘Funeral March’ of the Eroica Symphony, every entry made its point as the musicians unfolded Strauss’s volatile counterpoint with decisive sensitivity. Roman Simovic was officially the leader, but here he was first among equals, and all of them fielded the music’s ensemble, tone and lyrical power with remarkable fluency. Perhaps Metamorphosen could be a useful alternative to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ as Europe’s anthem, especially after such a heartfelt performance as this.
There was the same open sound from the full LSO for Das Lied, enhanced by the arrangement of the strings, with a wall of double basses at the back of the platform appearing as a galvanising presence. Once again, the playing was stupendous, and for all Rattle’s campaigning for a new concert hall, he certainly knows how to play to the Barbican Hall’s responsive strengths. He also knows how to achieve an astonishing clarity and depth of sound that showed of the all-important woodwind solos to best advantage – the flute and oboe contributions were outstanding – thus neatly keeping the work’s options open between Symphony and Song-cycle.
Having been used to tenor and mezzo soloists (mainly because that is usually what is on offer), I had no problem with the rarer baritone option, especially as sung by Simon O’Neill and Christian Gerhaher. They presented the six songs as two sides of the same coin. O’Neill flung himself into ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ with almost reckless defiance, riding the orchestra and stamping his personality on the music with heroic grandeur. The contrast with Gerhaher’s disembodied timbre in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ could not have been starker. Lieder-style, he weighed up the poem’s content as he was singing it in a way that was intensely communicated. The more outward-going passages of ‘Von der Schönheit’ were all the more effective set against Gerhaher’s default retreat into the music’s privacy, blown away by O’Neill’s magnificently animated demands for more drink, more life in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’.
Rattle, Gerhaher and the LSO then pulled off something remarkable in ‘Der Abschied’, flattering the poem’s beautifully poised emptying of emotion. Gerhaher’s singing, increasingly depersonalised rather than introspective, and the playing deferred to each other with incredible delicacy, the long interlude a miracle of sustained, fragmented exposure, and Gerhaher’s “Ewig … ewig” gradually being subsumed into the orchestra is unforgettable – and comes across faithfully on the Radio 3 broadcast.