Philharmonia Orchestra/Thielemann – 1 April

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La mer
Four Last Songs
Till Eulenspiegel

Adrianne Pieczonka (soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christian Thielemann

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 April, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The most magical moment was when the audience finally gave up applauding between movements (three-quarters through Strauss’s cycle!). It’s bad enough at the Proms … but at a Philharmonia concert! No blame on the group of children (who are very welcome as, hopefully, a future generation of concertgoers) who started acclaiming after the first section of La mer – any supervising adults around to advise ground-rules? – but one does wonder at some of the sheep-like grown-ups who joined in and even initiated later rounds. It’s a question of perceiving music whole, not just the bits. Maybe the RFH’s pre-concert ’attention’ speech about switching off phones and alarms (but which crucially fails to mention on-the-hour bleeps) should be extended to mention clapping in the wrong places.

The concert itself was perplexing. Christian Thielemann does it his way – he has the irregularity of Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch, a healthy disregard for authentic niceties, plays music beyond its notation and appreciates the use of antiphonal violins. Yet Till Eulenspiegel was starved of wit and sparkle; in place were deliberation and a hard punch.

The Austro/German repertoire that Thielemann seems exclusively to conduct was finally broken by two masterpieces of a great Frenchman – Faune, however, for all the attempts to make it sultry and shimmering was static (if not especially slow) with some unidiomatic emphases, while La mer had details pointed up and then blunted in textural malaise. Thielemann laid bare the changes of time signature in ’Jeux de vagues’ too abruptly and paraded too many primary colours in the jolting arrival at climaxes. Neither did some passages seem as bedded-down as is customary with this orchestra.

That Thielemann held the attention was to do with anticipating his individuality; ultimately, the parts didn’t add up. This was not the case with Four Last Songs. Away from the coughers, sweet-wrapper openers and plastic-bag rustlers, I’m now sure I heard Adrianne Pieczonka (replacing Anne Sofie von Otter who would have sung other Strauss Lieder) give a rather wonderful account of Strauss’s ’swansongs’. Without calculation or effect, and with more phrasal angularity (less legato) than the norm yet with no lack of soaring, Pieczonka got to the heart of Strauss’s valediction, not least in word-play, and in no uncertain terms musically. Thielemann accommodated her very effectively and there were sensitive solos from Laurence Davies and James Clark on horn and violin respectively.

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