Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Lott/LSO/Haitink, 15 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart - Symphony no.25 in G minor, KV 183
Strauss - Das Rosenband
Strauss - Wiegenlied
Strauss - Ruhe, meine Seele!
Strauss - Freundliche Vision
Strauss - Die heiligen drei Könige
Strauss - Ein Heldenleben

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

I was not entirely convinced by the programming here. This was the second of the LSO's Mozart and Strauss concerts under Bernard Haitink, part of a larger series vacuously entitled 'Pairs'. (Another 'pair' of composers had been Schubert and Bruckner.) The LSO's management seems a little too keen on these series-for-their-own-sake, since the concert also slotted into the 'Great Conductors' category. No one in his right mind would deny that Bernard Haitink was a great conductor; likewise, no one remotely interested in music would need to be told that he was. In any case, there was a sense of the 'Little' G minor symphony being tacked on to the beginning of a Strauss programme, which might have been better off with, say, Don Juan as a similarly substantial curtain-raiser. Alternatively, we might have heard in addition to the symphony a Mozart concert aria, thus highlighting the symphonic and vocal works of the chosen 'pair' of the composers. Mozart was, of course, a great influence on and inspiration to Strauss, but not especially in the works performed on this occasion.

At any rate, the symphony received a good performance. The orchestra, as in the preceding Mozart-Strauss concert, was perhaps a little more slimmed down than necessary, sounding more like the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields than the LSO. That said, there were no irritating 'period' mannerisms, for which we must nowadays be eternally grateful. Tempi were uncontroversial. We should again be most grateful for the fact that Haitink took the Minuet three-to-a-bar. The LSO's woodwind burbled beautifully during the Trio, putting one in mind of the Salzburg - and subsequent - serenades. And the finale was a true Allegro, with enough but never too much Sturm und Drang, to bring the work to a fine conclusion.

That said, there was a distinct transformation of aspiration and achievement in the Strauss items. Felicity Lott did everything one could have asked. She imparted grace, beauty, and line to individually-tailored, truly heartfelt readings of each of her songs. One could discern every single word, so that, although the Barbican had considerately printed texts and translations in the (free) programme, those of us knowing Strauss and/or German never needed them. Hers is not, of course, a Jessye Norman sort of voice, yet there is plenty of potential, fully realised here, to soar above the orchestra when required. The contribution from Haitink and the LSO was truly beyond compare. I have never heard an orchestral contribution so full of lustrous tone and meaning. Several times, perhaps especially during the Freundliche Vision, I was reminded of just how great a Wagnerian Haitink is and how much we miss him. The direction imparted to the songs and the un-self-conscious moulding of the various instrumental lines was an object lesson in something far too elevated to be relegated to the category of 'accompaniment'. The only thing missing was Morgen! To my delight, Lott and Haitink performed it as an encore, which, more or less immediately - not least thanks to guest leader Sebastian Breuninger's exquisite solo - brought tears to my eyes.

Haitink brought all of these qualities - and more - to the fine performance of Ein Heldenleben. Whatever slight acidity the LSO's strings had acquired in the previous concert's Alpine Symphony had now evaporated (or however one might characterise such disappearance). Indeed, all sections of the orchestra were on top form, as once again was the guest leader. I wondered whether his solos were on occasion just a little too wayward, but then thought again: Pauline was more than a little inclined in that direction. It almost goes without saying, but should not, that Haitink proved a sure, symphonic guide to a score that can easily sound sprawling in lesser hands. Here its proportions were almost Classical, albeit with a clear lineage in the colouristic and formal experiments of Liszt's symphonic poems, which Haitink recorded superbly many years ago with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. One is never going to rid Ein Heldenleben of bombast; nor should one even try, since it is integral to the very idea of the composition. (The number of those who somehow fail to appreciate Strauss's irony is legion.) Yet this was never empty display; it was tailored to the musico-dramatic line of one of the very finest of Strauss's symphonic poems, all the sharper for Haitink's predictable yet still laudable refusal to play to the gallery.