Britten
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op.31
Strauss
Tod und Verklarung, Op.24
Der Rosenkavalier, Op.59 – Suite

Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)
David Pyatt (horn)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn
It was very nice of the LSO to put on for me a birthday concert, and a splendid choice in Andre Previn as host! Although I have more and more ambivalence to Strauss, his Op.24 does remain a favourite piece; yet I must record surprise, in his centenary year and given his sympathy for him, that Previn wasn’t conducting some Walton.
Britten and Strauss certainly make apposite bedfellows given their technical facility, and in their ability to contrive. Britten’s public and private sides were contrasted here, as were Strauss’s grandiose and sugary propensities. Sinfonia da Requiem crashed in with typical LSO impact, Previn viewing the three linked movements as an entity – from the implacable tread over frozen wastes (’Lacrymosa’) to the radiant transformation of ’Requiem aeternam’, Previn distilling the music’s purity ideally. Earlier the cathartic climax of ’Lacrymosa’, although powerful, lacked tension; the central ’Dies irae’, virtuoso and detailed, needed more malice and whiplash.
Exemplary string playing informed Serenade, Previn taking great care with the small print and drawing some beautiful nocturnal colours to support Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s plangent expression. He replaced John Mark Ainsley and brought distinctive identification to Britten’s settings of Blake, Tennyson, Keats, and that most prolific poet, Anonymous! Rolfe Johnson, always focussed on the words and their imagery, sang with discretion and inwardness, nothing forced. David Pyatt offered vivid horn solos and, for the most part, was secure, yet there were times when I wished he’d caught Rolfe Johnson’s subtlety; this made his underplayed vitriol in ’Dirge’ (“This ae nighte…”) unexpected. Pyatt executed a perfect glissando to close ’Elegy’; the distance achieved for his off-stage ’Epilogue’ was well judged.
Previn led a dogged account of Death and Transfiguration, one blessedly free of melodrama if not overloud brass, the opening introspection of a dying man’s half-remembered thoughts and faltering heartbeat palpably suggested. The ensuing feverish rallying might have been more potent, but Previn never descends music to vulgarity; in any case some might think Strauss had arrived there already (there’s enough nobility to transcend such charges I think). Previn’s gathering of loose threads for the transfiguration itself was masterly in one of Strauss’s most perfect passages of beauty and resolution, resplendently played.
I believe that I am in good company with Benjamin Britten in not finding much in Der Rosenkavalier. Indeed I think it cloying and dripping with artifice. The 20-minute Suite only sustains interest for a couple of them – the opening up until the horn whoops and, of course, the Act 3 ’Trio’; voices or not, this penetrates to the core. Orchestral confection it may be but Previn’s unsentimental conducting made a strong case. Beautifully etched as it was, with many beguiling touches not least Maurice Murphy’s trumpet solos, the need for some Walton became even greater!

  • Andre Previn conducts the LSO this Sunday and Monday, 3 & 4 February, in the Barbican Hall – Sibelius Violin Concerto (Kyung-Wha Chung), Dvorak Symphony No.7 and his own (brilliantly inventive!) Diversions
  • Box Office: 020 7638 8891 www.barbican.org.uk

 

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