The music of Richard Strauss is dramatic, radical and philosophical. It is also a surprisingly good cure for a February cold; its sheer vitality blows away those winter blues. (Fear not – it’s also loud enough to mask all manner of snuffles and sneezes!) How fortunate that Daniel Harding and the LSO chose a wet February evening to perform not one, but two Strauss works, as well as Ravel’s cheery Piano Concerto in G Major. Harding returns to the Barbican with Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration on February 17th should you feel the need to take in a little musical medicine.
Don Juan is one of Strauss’s earliest descriptive works: before this he believed music should be absolute – it should not be used to tell a story but should be understood only as music. It is based on Nikoluas Lenau’s poem Don Juan, although Strauss only includes three short extracts of the massive 1,094 line poem. Don Juan spends his time with beautiful women, living only for pleasure until he grows dissatisfied with life and allows himself to lose a duel, the music dissolving into silence. The piece begins with a famously difficult fast passage for strings, played by the LSO with panache and ease. Guest Principal Oboist Nora Cismondi played with expressive beauty as the seductive Don and the brass and percussion sections played with enough energy to ward off the “weariness and waning of joy” that the Don fears so much.
Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto makes quite a contrast to Strauss’s philosophical comment on life and death. Ravel wrote that he wanted his concerto to be “light-hearted and brilliant”; pianist Hélène Grimaud was well equipped to do his wishes justice. Daniel Harding began the first movement at an excellent pace, allowing the very rhythmic music to bounce along nicely. His spiky, angular gestures pointed out every accent and syncopation, resulting in a sparkling performance. Grimaud matched this exciting pace, occasionally relaxing the speed in order to give time to an especially lovely phrase. This elasticity of tempo and her exceptionally clear, bright tone were perfect for the lively Concerto. The work uses a small orchestra and makes the most of every player: there are wonderful solos for more unusual instruments such as the harp and cor anglais. Harp solos are often all too brief, a wonderful effect but nothing more developed: here we were given a chance to hear the excellent Bryn Lewis in two extended solos. The cor anglais also has an extremely long solo, played sympathetically by Christine Pendrill.
From the light-hearted back to the deep in thought: Also sprach Zarathustra is based on philosopher Nietzsche’s book of the same name. In it Nietzsche rejects religion and discusses the arrival of a Superman; a man as superior to us as we are to the ape. The opening, made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, began with appropriately earth-shattering playing, followed by a passage which started unusually slowly and gradually unfurled, giving it the impressive weight the work demands. A fantastically creepy solo for the double basses led to an even more massive restatement of the opening theme and then a waltz, “The Dance-Song”, with more underlying menace than a bouquet of poisoned roses. The piece ends not with the triumphant creation of a Superman, but with the music asking whether he will ever come at all. Two clashing harmonies fight together as the piece dies away, quietly doubting that joy will ever triumph over sorrow. To follow this sobering thought Harding gave the piece a great deal of time to settle before receiving the well-deserved applause, a gesture which allowed the audience time to reflect on an excellent performance of this searching work.