BBC SSO / Elder
City Halls, Glasgow
In their own way, Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss thought a lot of themselves and expressed as much in their music. While that might seem a gross understatement where Wagner is concerned, and a potent but pleasant truth when it comes to Strauss, for Mozart it was expressed in terms of honestly-intentioned free-spiritedness with a capacity to express the frivolous and the wretched with almost unrivalled humanity.
This was a BBC SSO programme, combining all three composers, that was right up veteran conductor Sir Mark Elder’s street. He is a Wagnerian par excellence, capable of eliciting maximum intensity with minimum interference. He translates that naturally to the emotive excesses of Strauss, wisely so in an approach that guards against a potentially riotous free-for-all. In Mozart – in this case with the slimmest of reduced forces – his respect for classical tautness and proportions is flexible enough to accommodate dramatic fire.
He was joined in the last – the rarely-heard concert aria “Ah, lo previdi” dating from the end of Mozart’s Salzburg period in 1777 – by the soprano Sophie Bevan, wife of the SSO’s newly-appointed chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, who, incidentally, will replace Marin Alsop in charge of next week’s Thursday Series concert.
Bevan’s performance, a pseudo-operatic narrative based on texts from a libretto by Vittorio Cigna-Santi on the trials and tribulations of the woeful Andromeda, was one of passionate engagement, stopping short of melodrama, but with a vocal range that freely explored the score’s volcanic vicissitudes. Elder gleaned empathetic support from the orchestra, bringing principal oboist Stella McCracken front stage for her gently persuasive solo obbligato in the final Cavatina.
The opening Wagner – a coupling of the Prelude from Act I and Good Friday Music from Act III from his opera Parsifal – took time to settle. While a degree of timelessness informed the slow, aching unfolding of the Prelude, it bore a fragility that undermined its intensity, its sense of expectation. Intonation malfunctions in critical woodwind chords merely added to the unease. Elder’s magic took root in the second extract, however, the orchestra now onside with a heart-felt performance oozing soulfulness and sublime warmth.
It was the latter qualities, plus the curbed temptations to overindulge, in Strauss’ 1899 self-serving tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) that proved the outright hit of the evening. Philosophically bound to the Nietzschean concept of man as a hero whose self-overcoming struggles lead to inward fulfilment, and vividly applied by Strauss to aspects of his own life, the musical journey is a whirlwind of impassioned extremes.
Elder shaped those with masterful reserve, leaving much of the initiative to the significantly inflated SSO ranks – among them 8 horns no less, and 6 trumpets – yet always there to draw a red line. That was imperative in matching the explosive magnitude of the battle music to the modest hall, which he impressively achieved; and brilliantly effective in articulating the cacophonous carping of the critics, which Strauss must have had enormous fun in writing.
But central to this performance, and to a great extent defining it, was leader Laura Samuel’s extended solo violin role, opening reservedly with awe and wonderment, but soon adopting a full-blooded bravado that harnessed the tempestuousness of the composer’s wife, a manic concoction of the sensual and the irrational. It’s unlikely Strauss was out to make too many friends in the references he bravely pursued.
Available for 30 days after broadcast on BBC Sounds