Friday, 31 August 2007

Edinburgh Festival: Strauss and Mahler, SFSO/Tilson Thomas, 30 August 2007

Usher Hall

Strauss: Salome - final scene

Mahler: Symphony no.7

Deborah Voigt (soprano)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

Deborah Voigt's assumption of the role of Salome, albeit for a single scene, was the finest I have heard in the flesh. Hers was superlative Strauss-singing, every phrase shaped and shaded with the care that is vital to avoid this becoming a tiresome feat of vocal display. Voigt showed herself alert to every twist and turn of the text, the music, and most importantly, the marriage of text and music. Her diction was such that one could discern every word, an achievement that is not to be taken for granted from Strauss sopranos. Moreover, although this was a concert performance, she really had assumed the role, permitting the listener's directorial imagination to transport itself wherever it would. The orchestra offered impressive support under Michael Tilson Thomas, and often rather more than that, leading where required. Balances were well calculated - and projected. All that was really lacking was a sense of truly having lived this music as a seasoned opera orchestra would, or a symphony orchestra in a great performance might somehow be able to pretend that it had. The phantasmagorical display of colours and harmonic shocks could not entirely remove the sense that this was a 'showpiece' rather than the culmination of a drama. Voigt largely had to shoulder that responsibility herself. One grumble: it might be claimed that it would have been prohibitively expensive to engage singers for the lines allotted to Herod and Herodias, but one does miss them, and no one would consider omitting an important orchestral line in similar fashion. Without that chilling, gloriously melodramatic final line from Herod - 'Man töte dieses Weib! - the final bars lose some at least of their dramatic motivation. (I know that we all too often endure performances of the 'Immolation Scene' without Hagen, but that is no excuse.)

It was an ambitious programme, to say the least, which coupled the final scene from Salome with Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Once again, the orchestra was on excellent technical form, which should not be taken wholly for granted: I recall a deeply unimpressive Proms performance a few years ago from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ivan Volkov. Tilson Thomas clearly has ideas about what may well be the most problematical of Mahler's symphonies, and knows moreover how to put them into practice. His reading was certainly interventionist, though never narcissistically so. It married something of the bracing modernist coloration of Pierre Boulez with the 'house of horrors' scenario Leonard Bernstein so memorably portrayed in his Deutsche Grammphon recording with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The extraordinary surprise of Daniel Barenboim's route, assimilating the work to the great symphonic tradition, was not taken here, but Barenboim's appears so far to be a singular approach, which may not benefit from imitation. There were occasions when I thought Tilson Thomas lingered a little too much, perhaps above all during the second Nachtmusik movement, which can easily overstay its welcome. And there was something of a stop-go character to some progressions, which did not quite seem worked out as it might have done in the kind of post-Adornian, glorying-in-incoherence sensibility that Boulez brings to the work. The orchestra improved as the work went on. Brass and percussion were superb throughout, as were the violas, who shone whenever Mahler allowed them to do so. However, the other strings sometimes sounded a little thin, anonymous even, until the third movement at least. The first two movements were also somewhat marred by insensitive playing from the middle woodwind instruments - oboes and clarinets - whose phrasing was curiously unshaped, or even absent. They appeared to up their game later on, to match the most impressive flute playing from which we had benefited throughout. This was a good but not great Mahler performance. Unfortunately, the general level of Mahler performance from conductors as different as Boulez, Abbado, Haitink, and on occasion Barenboim and Rattle, is now so high that one notices more than one otherwise might, just how much apparently fine gradations can matter.