South Bank festival kicks off with spectacular Strauss

The South Bank are embarking on a six-month festival tracing the development of C20th music, based on Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise. The London Philharmonic Orchestra are described as the ‘backbone’ of the endeavour and, fittingly, it was the LPO that kicked off the proceedings with a high-impact Strauss concert of both familiar and rarer fare.

A vivid account of Also Sprach Zarathustra started the concert, with Vladimir Jurowski ensuring that its oh-so-familiar opening Sonnenaufgang was given due impact but not so much weight and grandeur that it sits in isolation from the following sections. From seven rows back, and even with his back to us, the control and precision with which Jurowski directs the orchestra and communicates the musical dynamics were grippingly evident. They played stunningly well throughout.

The Four Early Songs that followed didn’t make a great impression on me and, when compared to the more expressionist pieces that followed, I didn’t get a great deal from the interpretations of either Karita Mattila or Thomas Hampson. Jurowski’s introduction to the works, provided from the side of the stage whilst they reset the platform for a smaller orchestra, alluded to echoes of Wagner and other composers in the orchestration, but bar one very noticeable parallel to the opening of O du mein holder Abendstern in the introduction to one of the songs, it sounded very much the soundworld of Richard Strauss.

After the interval, Hampson gave a performance of the relative rarity Notturno with a fascinating orchestral soundworld (which Jurowski described as “like a violin concerto”, with the orchestra leader taking the position of a soloist). It also had about as gloomy and overblown a text as can be imagined. It was interesting, but not particularly moving, even with Hampson expertly shading his still plush voice to heighten the (relatively unvarying) emotions of the piece.

The two pieces that closed the concert were absolutely magnificent. The orchestra really shone under Jurowski’s vivid direction in the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. The switch from angular rhythms to a rush of more melodic low strings was particularly finely judged and the whole piece was more gripping than often it comes across in concert. Even that, however, was no preparation for the remarkable concluding work: the closing scene from Salome, with Mattila bringing her wealth of stage experience into the concert hall. It even stilled the generally fidgety audience, some of whom gave the appearance of being disappointed that an evening of Strauss didn’t include the Blue Danube.

Anyway, in the absence of scenery to chew, there was much munching of platform, podium and several music stands. It was a histrionic tour de force, culminating in physical convulsions and final collapse to accompany the closing jabbing chords that describe Salome’s destruction by Herod’s soldiers. If the more introspective songs had earlier pointed up the occasional limitations now present in Mattila’s voice, it was here in complete service of this more theatrical music: a glorious radiance took its place alongside thrillingly-hurled declamation and the use of that blanched tone which always provides the base on which her rich vocal characterisations are founded. It wasn’t always beautiful in a conventional sense, but it was part of a simply astounding performance of this violent, gritty music. Her standing ovation would have been well-deserved if only for sheer effort and force of engagement, but having witnessed it so wonderfully close up, I was happy to join in in tribute to a shatteringly powerful total performance.

The rest is, indeed, noise…


    1. Always enjoy the weighty precision of the Philharmonia! Can’t see that they are involved in this festival though, seems the LPO is the ‘anchor’ orchestra for the events over the year. Enjoyed reading your write-up of the CD, thanks for the link.

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