Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Vier Gesänge, Op.33 [Verführung; Gesang der Apollopriesterin; Hymnus; Pilgers Morgenlied]
Zwei Größere Gesänge, Op.44 – I: Notturno
Salome – Dance of the Seven Veils; Final Scene
Karita Mattila (soprano)
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 19 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Rest is Noise – Chapter One, The Big Bang. The Southbank Centre’s heavily heralded series, planned around the book by the American critic Alex Ross, is a history of the twentieth-century through its music, which became first among equals as the voice of contemporary expression instead of trying to catch up with it. In fact the Southbank Centre has been no slouch over the years in making room for thorough explorations of twentieth-century themes and individual composers, inevitably hastening the historicising process; and in some far-sighted concert planning The Rest is Noise series is all set to cover the territory in some depth over the coming year, the bulk of the orchestral strain taken by the London Philharmonic.
Alex Ross’s starting point is Strauss’s sublimely degenerate opera Salome (1905), but we had to reverse to 1896 for Strauss to start detaching himself as far as he could from the shade of the beast of Bayreuth – indeed, I overheard one concertgoer opining that it was “a scandal” that the series didn’t start with the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1857-59), which tipped music over the edge – although I’d have thought it was implicit, and there’s Debussy’s Faune (1894), too. I doubt that Also sprach Zarathustra’s famous opening will ever be free of Stanley Kubrick’s sunrise imagery, which with cinematic candour has tended to obscure the remaining eight sections of an orchestral showpiece more often the climax of a concert than a half-hour overture. An Open Sesame to the bindweed-like tendencies of Jugendstil it may be, but not, oddly, in this muted performance. Even the naked and unashamed blast of the opening didn’t quite hit the spot, although later in ‘Of the great longing’ section, Vladimir Jurowski whipped up some sugar-rush richness, and the placement of the orchestra (double basses at maximum distance from the brass) secured an impressive and clear spread of sound. Yet, even if there wasn’t the flamboyance to offset the self-aggrandising bombast of the music, there was some marvellously suspended woodwind playing in ‘Of science and learning’, and Jurowski guided the warring tonalities to a crafty, to-be-continued ending.
The next step on the primrose path to hardcore eroticism was ‘four early songs’, Karita Mattila taking the first two songs and Thomas Hampson the remainder. If any Das Lied von der Erde-anticipating flow between the songs were intended, it was broken by soloists’ entries and exits and by applause between each setting. Overtly Wagnerian – ‘Hymnus’ has a harp prelude instantly evoking Tannhäuser – and with the poems heaving with sexual imagery, they are ripe examples of turn-of-the-century fantasy. Mattila was on home turf in the surging ‘Verführung’ and the dramatic ‘Gesang der Apollopriesterin’ (Song of Apollo’s Priestess), singing and acting them with her characteristic power, warmth and rapport. Hampson’s voice tended to disappear in his lower range, notably so in ‘Hymnus’, but he was magnificent in the wonderful ‘Notturno’, described by Jurowski in a short introduction as a cross between Lied, tone poem and violin concerto. Richard Dehmel’s poem (full of late-romantic imagery of the moon, paleness, desolation and the void) forges a direct link with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (based on another poem by Dehmel) and the neurotic, extended monologue of Erwartung. Hampson was mesmerising in the poem’s contemplation of longed-for death, “the great longing without a goal” – expressed as a long violin solo ravishingly played by leader Pieter Schoeman – his singing seeped in Amfortas-like anguish and completely in the spirit of this remarkable song, with the much-reduced orchestra revelling in Strauss’s flickering half-lights and pale textures.
In another between-works talk, Jurowski described how he had gone to a later Dresden scoring of Salome that had been refigured as a kindness to the lead soprano, but the platform was still impressively crowded. ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ caught the heady scent of erotic languor and mounting urgency, the sequence of waltzes accumulating the corruption that would flood into the final scene of Salome. This was what the audience had been waiting for, and as the 50-something-going-on-17 demonic, depraved, obsessed teenager, Karita Mattila did not disappoint. Although bathed in a light that made her look as though she had overdone the sun-bed, she was a terrifying display of preening, slobbering, petulant heat, any vocal strain offset by the extraordinary physicality of her performance – you really couldn’t take your eyes off her. Crushed and crouched on the floor, Strauss’s and Oscar Wilde’s heroine had tasted the bitterness of forbidden love, and the audience went mad for her. How very satisfying.