Mattila, Hampson, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Mattila, Hampson, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall
Richard Strauss's odyssey towards the voluptuous horrors of Salome: ambitious in principal, flawed in practice
This may have been the official, lavish fanfare for the Southbank’s The Rest is Noise Festival, which if the hard sell hasn’t hit you yet is a year-long celebration of 20th Century music in its cultural context and based around Alex Ross's bestseller of the same name. For Jurowski and the LPO, though, it was very much through-composed programme planning as usual, though with a sweeping bow towards the festival theme of how modernism evolved as it did.
In this case Jurowski fashioned a very selective, very long (it could have been a three-parter) and often unusual nine-year odyssey for Richard Strauss towards the voluptuous horrors of his 1905 opera Salome. Ambition, though, for once outstripped some of the execution, with even the star singers, Karita Mattila and Thomas Hampson, finding that the vocal embodiment of Strauss’s huge demands couldn’t always match the dramatic, much as that thrilled in Salome’s final love-death.
There was none of the sweeping involvement or the jaw-dropping blazes that can churn up the adolescent in us
Only Jurowski would dare to place Also sprach Zarathustra, Strauss’s giddying poetic homage to Nietzsche, not only in the first half of the concert, but a first half to be shared with some of Strauss’s next steps. Premiered in 1896, It’s certainly one of those preludes to the 20th century which seems way ahead of its time, and has a special claim in that a 1902 Budapest performance turned the young Bartók back to the path of composing.
You can’t get more C-majorish than the Kubrick-immortalised opening sunrise, trumpeter Paul Beniston leading a carefully graded light in each of his three famous summons. On the other hand, what could be wackier than the fugue which takes the theme through the 12 notes of the chromatic scale – the first tone-row? – as a dark meditation on the dryness of academic learning, a stage Nietzsche decided man had to pass through on his way to transcendence. This was one of the many irreproachably balanced strange sounds Jurowski judged to perfection, starting with the back row of double-basses.
Yet despite all the orchestral revelations, there was none of the sweeping involvement or the jaw-dropping blazes that can churn up the adolescent in us. In short, too much Apollonian objectivity and not enough Dionysian wildness.
A chilliness in the delivery wasn’t helped by what sounded like lack of ideal preparation this complex work needs, nor by Jurowski’s decision to follow the line of Strauss the conductor rather than indulgent Karajan in speeding through some of the sections, and not always taking the whole of the orchestra with him.
Perhaps the rough edges were not surprising, given that more rehearsal time might have been needed for the rest of the programme: the LPO would probably not have played the final scene from Salome in living memory, and certainly not the five colossal orchestral songs that we were so lucky to hear in the concert. Of the four from Op. 33, the leisurely glow of "Verführung" ("Seduction") and the hieratic calm of the "Song of Apollo’s Priestess", with its surprising thematic anticipation of Salome’s demand for John the Baptist’s Head, are the gems. Mattila was imposingly at home in the second, though the first showed up what has become a problem in the break between chest voice, a gauzy middle that is beginning to wobble and the still beautiful diaphanous top of the range.
Hampson (pictured above by Dario Acosta) had a harder job, though proudly stepping up to a song-contest like similarly harp-announced Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser to voice his flattering Hymn. Here the low notes tended to vanish, suggesting that although Strauss stipulated a high baritone for this and the less convincing rhapsody setting Goethe’s “Pilgrim’s Morning Song”, a more bass-baritonal approach might work better.
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