Philharmonia Orchestra/Dohnányi – Strauss & Mozart – Melanie Diener sings Four Last Songs / Johannes Schöllhorn Music of Today

Johannes Schöllhorn
Anamorphoses – Contrapunctus VI, IV, IX & XI and Canon per augmentationem in contrariu moto 3 [UK premiere]

Don Juan, Op.20
Four Last Songs
Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Roland Kluttig [Schöllhorn]

Melanie Diener (soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Christoph von DohnányiChristoph von Dohnányi knows just how to launch the tricky opening of Don Juan: thus with a simple and clear gesture Richard Strauss’s ebullient and masterly early orchestral success was unanimously up and running. Well, not quite running, for the roué himself seemed a little downcast (hardly a reflection of the physically prime conductor), the Philharmonia Orchestra’s playing a little tentative at times. If this wasn’t the most-dramatic of narratives, Dohnányi’s canny seamless integration of tempo and episodes made for an absorbing musical experience, vividly detailed (not least in harp and trumpets) with striking clarity of texture suggesting chamber music writ large. An endearing oboe solo from Gordon Hunt, tenderly reciprocated by first violins, left a memorable impression, and there was no lack of Heft when required. At the other end of the concert Till Eulenspiegel was given a scintillating outing, the rascal’s energetic escapades deftly played and beautifully balanced, given with wit, flexibility and a light touch, making climactic moments all the more thrilling.

Fifty-plus years later the 84-year-old Strauss was contemplating what would become his ultimate opus. The first of Four Last Songs (given here in published rather than first-performance order), ‘Frühling’, was given gentle blossoming. Melanie Diener took a while to settle, not quite easeful enough and with some approximate top notes; but clear enough were her experience in this music and her selfless intentions for it. The intimacy of ‘September’ was lovingly conveyed, aided by the clarity of string textures and a gentle horn solo. If in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ (Going to Sleep) Diener seemed a little shy of fully opening out her phrases, she responded deeply to Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s heavenly violin solo, spaciously unfolded; for a while we were in another place. ‘Im Abendrot’ is the final ‘Going to Sleep’, Diener’s relatively colour-less timbre (and her team-player instincts) aiding a dignified and solemn leave-taking, very sensitively sounded by the orchestra.

As a symphonic side-salad, Mozart in G minor found the now baton-less Dohnányi sculpting a determined yet yielding performance of rhythmic élan, antiphonal violins flaring along nicely, grace-notes short (inauthentic in length but spot-on nonetheless), the sound lean, finely shaded and without acerbity. The Andante flowed, simply sung and lightly dancing, with bassoons engagingly to the fore. The Minuet offered a stern retort if leavened by the serenading oboes, bassoons and horns of the Trio. The finale, surreptitious and syncopated, completed a real treat of a performance, one of such quality that the lack of second-half repeats was sorely missed.

The Music of Today aperitif was the first such concert under the stewardship of new Artistic Director Unsuk Chin. Unlike her predecessor, Julian Anderson, she failed to ask punters to switch mobiles off. The stewards also miscalculated by letting latecomers in during a break, which meant the ear and eye was distracted when the performance continued almost immediately; and as for the usher who crossed the floor from entire left to right behind the stalls, noisily with heavy footsteps and with indifference to the in-progress music-making … well, she was that loud even the conductor looked round.

Johannes Schöllhorn (born 1962) has reinterpreted six pieces from J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue. We heard five, totalling about 35 minutes. The composer was in attendance and spoke with Unsuk Chin. Anamorphoses is a visual-art technique: all to do with angles and different views of the same thing; quite Birtwistlian. In terms of Schöllhorn’s Bach-inspired music – scored for string trio, double bass, two clarinets (one doubling bass), brass quartet, prepared piano and accordion – it opens with pizzicato mechanisms and col legno effects, fragments of a fugue appearing. Certainly Schöllhorn’s writing is precisely even wonderfully imagined – painstakingly notated – but as early as ‘Contrapunctus IV’, for all the misty use of an accordion, the slow colour-changing progress (recalling the third Piece of Schoenberg’s Opus 16) either remained spellbinding or became tedious. Elsewhere the economy of György Kurtág’s music came to mind; at other times, when a quicker pace was gratefully seized upon and linearity sensed, it was the Stravinsky of Dumbarton Oaks that surfaced. The final ‘Canon’ built up the most propulsion but then stopped, inconclusively. As Anamorphoses was being excerpted anyway, maybe fewer choices from it could have been made and something else from Schöllhorn’s catalogue given in order to give a wider suggestion of his work. The musicians’ response was suitably refined and interactive.

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