Friday 25 November 2011

Diener/Philharmonia/Kluttig and Dohnányi: Schöllhorn, Strauss, and Mozart, 24 November 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Johannes Schöllhorn – Anamorphoses: Contrapunctus IV, VI, IX, XI, and Canon per augmentationem in contrario motu

Strauss – Don Juan, op.20
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Mozart – Symphony no.25 in G minor, KV 183
Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28

Melanie Diener (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Roland Kluttig and Christoph von Dohnányi (conductors)

‘Schöllhorn, Strauss, and Mozart’: not, alas, a firm of German lawyers, nor even the composers featured in a Philharmonia concert, but rather those appearing in two. The first in a new series of ‘Music of Today’ featured members of the Philharmonia, conducted by Roland Kluttig in five movements from Johannes Schöllhorn’s Bach-reworking, Anamorphoses; the second welcomed back sometime Principal Conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi, for Strauss and a little Mozart.

Schöllhorn’s music was selected by Music of Today’s new Artistic Director, Unsuk Chin, to open her series. (Ivan Fedele and Gérard Grisey are amongst the others who will be featured.) Anamorphoses refers to Schöllhorn’s inspiration in the mannerist technique of having the viewer see different aspects of a painting according to where he is standing: Holbein’s The Ambassadors would be an obvious example. Schöllhorn presents the Art of Fugue in a fashion that for him – and, I thought, for the listener – presents Bach’s music not only as coming from the cathedral, but also from the bazaar. The accordion is a nice touch in that respect, though its employment is far from limited to presentation of ‘street colour’; indeed, its music later forms a significant component of the still, or rather gradually beating, heart to the movements we heard. There is Stravinskian spikiness later on, but just as arresting is the Berio-like technique – I think more of Berio’s orchestration of a Purcell hornpipe and his variations on ‘Ein mädchen oder Weibchen’ than his Art of Fugue transcription – in which wisps of music become apparent, whilst having been ever-present, sometimes submerged. Sinfonia’s treatment of Mahler also sprang to mind, especially in Contrapunctus XI. Performances seemed keenly observed and committed. I should love to hear more – though preferably without the distracting company of the roving telephone-photographer, eventually, albeit far too late, asked to desist from his travels around the hall and even into the choir.

Don Juan opened the second concert and was the only disappointment: not that it was bad, but more a matter of seeming to have caught Dohnányi before he had really found his stride. The Philharmonia sounded tremendous from the opening upwards sweep, but its direction early on was somewhat brusque, four-square even, though the more tender moments were permitted to sing. Zsolt-Tihámer Visontay’s solos as leader were predictably fine. As partial compensation for the lack of narrative swagger, Dohnányi offered a great deal of revealing attention to detail, thematically as much as pictorially, not least in the generative emphasis accorded to the cello line. Ultimately, however, though I was often (relatively) impressed, I remained unmoved.

The Four Last Songs were another matter – as surely they must. (Imagine a performance that did not move; or rather, try to banish such thoughts or recollections.) Melanie Diener showed that she could float a line just as long as Strauss – or Dohnányi – required, without turning the vocal line into just another gorgeous strand of orchestration: the words meant something. When Hermann Hesse’s verse told of the soul unwatched in free flight (‘Und die Seele unbewacht/will in freien Flügen schweben’) that was just what we heard – and felt. Dohnányi’s leadership was resolutely unsentimental, but not without sentiment. ‘Frühling’ evoked springtime, thereby permitting transformation to take place. Through the subtle array of colours in the final stanza of ‘September’, autumnal phantasmagoria turned to weariness – not too much, just enough – in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, Strauss’s music possessed of unassuming dignity. It moved as Don Juan never had, which is not only a matter of the works’ individual qualities. Likewise, the introduction to ‘Im Abendrot’ was perfectly judged, in a similar vein; I was especially grateful for the rich – not too much, just enough – viola line, and its heart-rending articulation. ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ Maybe, or maybe not: life seemed as much affirmed as denied.

Mozart’s ‘Little’ G minor Symphony was a somewhat odd bedfellow, Strauss’s devotion to Mozart notwithstanding. Either more Mozart or more Mozartian Strauss, perhaps both, might have worked better; as it was, there was a slight sense of the palette-cleanser. That was a pity, since Dohnányi led an impressive performance, hamstrung only by a strangely prosaic slow movement, in which phrase merely followed phrase. The first movement, however, was mightily impressive: vehement, without exaggeration, stylishly accomplished throughout. Structure was clearly delineated, making me keen to hear the conductor in Haydn, especially Sturm und Drang Haydn. Interplay between antiphonally placed first and second violins enthralled; there was a true sense of divine drama through ‘purely’ musical means. The minuet was finely detailed, and taken at a sensible tempo, with no fashionable one-in-a-bar nonsense. (In that connection, how refreshing it also was to welcome a decently-sized orchestra, with ten first violins down to four double basses, though Mozart himself would have welcomed larger forces, a fact the ‘authenticke’ lobby simply ignores.) The trio emerged as wondrous Harmoniemusik, breathing the air of a Salzburg summer’s evening, whilst the finale, fast but not breathless, resumed the non-exhibitionistic vehemence of the opening.

Till Eulenspiegel benefited from the reinvigoration imparted, at least seemingly so, by Mozart; this was a much livelier, more flexible reading than that accorded Don Juan. In Dohnányi’s hands, Strauss’s score sounded full of incident, superbly articulated, the performance blessed with excellent grasp of structure, permitting narrative and character to emerge with proper coherence. It was elegant, witty, and dashing. The trickiness of Strauss’s post-Meistersinger counterpoint was navigated as if it were the easiest thing in the world, which it certainly is not. The Philharmonia’s brass sounded positively Wagnerian, albeit with an apt materialist edge. In this quite outstanding account, I was above all reminded with what surpassing virtuosity Strauss, the reviser of Berlioz’s treatise, composed for orchestra.