Don Juan, Op.20
Four Last Songs
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Solveig Kringelborn (soprano)
Sir Charles Mackerras
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 10 April, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In the last of a trio of Philharmonia Orchestra concerts with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting Richard Strauss and symphonies numbered ‘3’, it seems that Sir Charles has abandoned totally the use of antiphonal violins (hopefully not a consequence of these concerts being recording for the Philharmonia’s on-line service) – not a calamity, although all the music he has conducted in this series was written for this design (and benefits from it) and it’s an arrangement that Sir Charles normally uses regularly (if inconsistently). More to the point, now that the refurbished Royal Festival Hall is approaching its first anniversary, it is becoming more and more evident that the projection of middle and bass frequencies remains troublesome and is altogether better if cellos occupy centre-stage (projecting outwards into the auditorium rather than across the platform); furthermore eight double basses (let alone the six for Strauss’s songs and the ‘Eroica’) – even in a line at the back of the stage – doesn’t quite offer enough weight (the London Philharmonic has been sporting 10 basses on occasions).
For all that the ‘Eroica’ (given at the same time that Stephen Kovacevich was conducting one in Cadogan Hall with the London Mozart Players) was in many ways well-balanced – aided by natural trumpets and crisp-sounding ‘period’ timpani – but such lucidity only gave the impression of a lack of monumentality, a fleet if not hard-driven first movement that was undoubtedly vital (the first-movement exposition repeat made integral rather than the slavish add-on that it can seem), but there wasn’t enough grind or rhetoric. In the second movement ‘Funeral March’, the emphasis was on motion, consistently well sprung but not bearing all the sorrows of the world. It was only in the final two movements that some real frisson emerged with a particularly mercurial reading of the scherzo – and with the three horns outstandingly deft and brazen – and a finale that seemed to encapsulate the whole and released with a joyous coda.
Those ‘old’ trumpets made a difference in the ‘Eroica’ and would have been welcome in Don Juan in which an edgy, too loud, first trumpet and hectoring trombones disfigured tuttis. Yet the performance – while not the most exacting ensemble-wise or spot-on in detailing – enjoyed a compensatory sweep and abandon, a youthful, lust-filled Don. The performance was spellbinding in the most-tender episodes, one of which featured an exception oboe solo from Gordon Hunt.
Topping everything was Solveig Kringelborn. This account of “Four Last Songs” – what a contrast with Don Juan, composed 60 years earlier – was ideally flowing and garnished with much expressive light and shade. Balance between soprano and orchestra was impeccable, Kringelborn drawing the listener in and avoiding Straussian cliché, always appreciative of the intricate web of sound being spun by the Philharmonia, Mackerras keen to avoid stasis and the mawkishness these settings can descend to, the work of a composer still alive if signing-off. With superb horn and violin solos (Tim Jackson and Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, respectively), it was a pleasure to hear such a musically considered account – no ‘star’ soprano pushing herself forward here – that breathed naturally with words pointed and painted with meaning and with a dynamically-restrained intimacy that had a fireside glow and was incredibly poignant. Altogether a very special performance given with true, selfless and perceptive artistry.