Monday, June 19, 2017

A Strauss Feast in Seattle

No one says goodbye quite like Richard Strauss. And not just in obviously elegiac works like the Vier Letzte Lieder or Metamorphosen. Listen to the final moments of Der Rosenkavalier, Capriccio, the death scene in Don Quixote, or the coda of Eine Alpensinfonie, and you would hear these very beautiful and special moments of farewell.

When I saw the programme for the Seattle Symphony’s concert this past weekend, I knew that I would have to make the trip down to the Emerald City. Vier Letzte Lieder in the first half and Eine Alpensinfonie after the interval – life just doesn’t get better than this. And it is always a treat to hear this wonderful orchestra in beautiful Benaroya Hall.

Soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin was the soprano soloist in the Vier Letzte Lieder, with Thomas Dausgaard sensitively weaving the gorgeous orchestral texture Strauss provides. Barkmin has a voice that could easily sail above any orchestra. Look at the operatic roles she tackles – Marie in Wozzeck, Isolde, Sieglinde, Emilia Marty in Věc Makropulos, to name just a few, and you would realize the kind of voice she needs to have. On Saturday, the power of her voice was of course evident, but there was also sensitivity in how she paints the words in music. It was a deeply moving performance, especially in the final two songs, and her singing of the final lines of Im Abendrot, “Wie sind wir wandermüde – ist dies etwa der Tod?” was especially heartfelt and affecting. She obviously meant what she sang. Thomas Dausgaard was most effective and sensitive in bringing out the beauty of Strauss’s orchestral writing. The French horn and violin solos in Beim Schlafengehen were particularly beautifully played.

The tear ducts were barely dry when Barkmin granted us an encore, Morgen, also by Strauss. It was a wonderfully intimate performance of one of Strauss’s most loving and lovely songs, and the wonderful violinist (I wasn’t sure of her name, as the orchestral personnel lists the concertmaster and associate concertmaster positions as currently vacant) who played the solos deserved equal credits for the meltingly beautiful performance.

A substantially enlarged orchestra – everything but the kitchen sink, almost - filled the stage after the interval for the composer’s Eine Alpensinfonie, which conductor André Previn referred to as “giant piece of strudel.” I personally find this to be one of the composer’s most endearing tone poems. Dausgaard, not surprisingly, reveled in the music, and successfully marshaled the huge orchestral forces and inspired them to play their best. I was so taken with how lush sounding the Seattle strings were on Saturday. There was, however, a feeling of riding from climax to climax, rather than presenting the work as an organic whole, with a sense of totality. This is easier said than done with this large work, as the many “tunes” are so very irresistible. The strings and bassoons played the opening descending B-flat minor scale with a palpable sense of mystery, and the four trombones and tuba at rehearsal 1 matched this atmosphere.

The celli and basses played the opening of Der Anstieg with gusto as well as the necessary weight in sound. I thought that the Jaghörner von ferne at five measures after 18 could have been much more boisterous. It was a little too reserved for my taste. The interplay between the woodwinds and strings in Am Wasserfall was most effectively done. In Auf dem Gipfel, Dausgaard deftly paced the strings in leading up to the oboe solo at 77. The oboe solo was extremely well played. What I missed, however, was this sense of breathless wonder, especially in the off-beat 8th notes at one measure after 77, when the mountain climber beholds the scenery below. However, the slowly emerging theme in the strings (79) unfolded beautifully, as was the brass theme at 80.

In Elegie (100), I thought that the strings could have played with a greater weight of sound. Yes, Strauss did write piano, but he also added espressivo, which I think is more crucial in creating the sadness, the feeling of regret, in the string colours.

The clarinet solo (7 measures after 103) was effectually played, and conjured the sense of impending danger in Stille vor dem Sturm. The orchestra was most impressive with their virtuosic playing in effectively conjuring up the storm. From my seat in row 4, the sound and the force of the orchestra were palpable.  The brass section was most convincing in conveying the feeling of majesty at 128, the few measures leading up to Sonnenuntergang. I was especially looking forward to the organ entry at 134 (Ausklang), since Benaroya Hall is one of the few halls blessed with a beautiful pipe organ. I was not disappointed. I did, however, think that the initial entry was a trifle too loud (Strauss indicated only forte), which took away the feeling of sacredness in the moment. The string playing of the beautiful theme at 138 was most heartfelt. In Nacht, Dausgaard effectively evokes the sense of mystery that was so apparent in the opening.

What a great privilege and pleasure it had been to hear these two great works of Richard Strauss. I am guessing that Eine Alpensinfonie is rarely done not only because of its difficulty, requiring heroic playing from every member of the orchestra, but because of the expense. Dausgaard and each and every one in the Seattle Symphony certainly rose to Strauss’s challenge, and gave all of us an indelible musical experience this past weekend.

Patrick May
Vancouver, Canada

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