Symphony No.34 in C, K338
Wagner, orchestrated Henze
Concerto in E flat (Dumbarton Oaks)
Anna Larsson (contralto)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 18 January, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The London Philharmonic has devised some notably imaginative programmes for the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and here was another collection of works involving a ‘reduced’ orchestra that was full of variety and intriguing juxtaposition. Stravinsky embracing Bach, Richard Strauss lamenting the destruction of Dresden and German Art (and summoning Beethoven’s Eroica funeral march), and Wagner effectively setting a love-affair to music (and here illuminated by another composer ‘looking back’).
If the Mozart seemed out of place, this was the symphony that he composed just before leaving Salzburg; so a tenuous ‘farewell’ to mirror Strauss’s. Mark Elder directed a poised and elegant account, one notable for highlighting the expressive interplay between antiphonal violins and for some ‘dramatic’ dynamics. What became palling though was the historically-informed sound; the lack of vibrato in the slow movement, however ‘pure’, became bland, and the finale overstayed its welcome – not because Elder repeated both halves but because timbral blends held little surprise. The pairs of oboes and bassoons, although in front of the centrally placed cellos and violas, lacked penetration (especially in the finale) yet there was too much from the (normally positioned) horns. A fourth double bass would have benefited the foundation.
The highlight of the concert was the Wagner, to five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck (spelt without the ‘c’ in the LPO’s programme) with whom Wagner had an affair. Musically entwined with his opera “Tristan und Isolde”, these ravishingly beautiful settings received a wholly compelling account (rudely interrupted after the fourth song by somebody applauding). Anna Larsson drew the listener in with her natural and unforced singing, and innate appreciation, and Hans Werner Henze’s 1976 orchestration proved quite masterly in being true to himself and in respecting Wagner. Small the orchestra may be (strings, woodwinds, horns and harp), but Henze’s luminous and sepulchral scoring seems more revealing of the music’s secrets than the usually-heard version of Felix Mottl (first four songs) and even Wagner (“Träume”) himself. Elder and the LPO gave a devoted performance, the basses now down to two, the violins together and the violas outside-right.
It was cellos outside-right for Stravinsky’s neo-Baroque ‘Dumbarton Oaks’, named after the house of the work’s commissioner, a twentieth-century Brandenburg Concerto, here given a reading incisive enough for the occasional uncertainty to stand out. The performance developed over its course (a mobile phone in contention at one point), always pointed and spirited, with the middle movement both graceful and playful and the finale’s mechanisms gratefully well-oiled. The 16 players enjoyed the exposure.
For Metamorphosen, Elder bid the violinists (not antiphonal, surprisingly for this conductor) and violists to stand, and played the music as written – for 23 solo strings rather than inflate to a full string orchestra (as Karajan, for example, used to). Elder concentrated on the music’s structure, direction and contrapuntal ingenuity in a rendition that slightly side-stepped some heartfelt flowerings, and if there was sometimes too much flow and not enough ebb, the closing measures were especially telling in the way the music seemed to “turn on its dark side” (to quote Tippett) as if a veil was being drawn on a world lost forever.
But for the (temporary) closure of the Royal Festival Hall, this diverse (if threaded) programme may not have happened; it proved as attractive on the night as it had done on paper – and was also a tribute to the versatility of the London Philharmonic’s musicians.