The Ring Without Words – Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia – Miah Persson sings Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs

Richard Strauss
Vier letzte Lieder

Wagner, arr. Lorin Maazel
The Ring Without Words

Miah Persson (soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 November, 2021
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This concert celebrated life’s passing at its most sumptuous, opening with Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs – the Philharmonia gave the premiere posthumously, conducted by Furtwängler with Kirsten Flagstad at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1950 – bestowing their transcendent melancholy on to death as an awfully big adventure. Behind Miah Persson’s serene and subtle performance, the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, worked his command of detail, balance and expansiveness on his ever-receptive players, and very much to Persson’s advantage. This wonderful Strauss soprano let her voice dip imperceptibly into shade as the poets Johann von Eichdorff’s and Herman Hesse’s imagery of weary acceptance gradually takes the upper hand, and Persson’s connection with their words was as strong as it was seemingly artless. Even better was the way her performance gathered majestically for the overwhelming sense of liberation at the end of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, courted in seraphic dialogue by the leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore’s sublime violin solo, and in ‘Im Abendrot’ born heavenwards by a peerless duet of ascending larks, flautists Samuel Coles and June Scott.

Persson has this uncanny knack of sometimes making her voice sound almost instrumental, and it works wonders in dispassionately focusing the music’s intensity, along with her purity of tone and seamless phrasing.

The end of days is very much the point of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a point made inescapably clear over four evenings with eighteen hours of music, and almost ever since its premiere in 1876, the work has been accessed via ‘bleeding chunks’ concerts. Lorin Maazel made his The Ring without Words in 1987, a 70-minute resumé of all four operas via predominantly orchestral material with some orchestrated voice passages, the sort of ‘previously in the Ring cycle’ narrative Wagner might give to a particular character so the audience could catch up. It’s interesting what Maazel left out – for example, the entry of Wotan and his crew into Valhalla; Siegmund’s ‘Notung’ moment in Die Walküre; and, most puzzlingly, the magnificent prelude to Act 3 of Siegfried plus Brünnhilde’s incomparable awakening, all of them crucial, I’d have thought, to how the tetralogy unfolds. If you agree that The Ring is all about Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried, Siegfried the character only comes substantially into his own in Maazel’s Götterdämmerung section, although Wagner magically prepares the way in Die Walküre.

Maazel moves swiftly on through Siegfried the opera to his Götterdämmerung coverage, which has by far the most space and is where my interest began to flag. Maazel does some symphonic conflation – for instance, the foreshortened ‘Magic Fire’ music is underpinned by Fafner’s snufflings from the beginning of Siegfried – and the ‘Forest Murmurs’ were a welcome quieter episode. The Philharmonia was at full strength, with a wall of ten double-basses, a huge brass section including four Wagner tubas, a mere two harps, and a suite of anvils placed near one of the bars just outside the auditorium. Rouvali’s baton tip is remarkably precise, and he steered his players through this Wagner synthesis with a clear understanding of its symphonic aspirations, all of it delivered with considerable panache.

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