The Philharmonia Orchestra is celebrating Richard Strauss' 150th anniversary with a mini concert series, which attempts to explore a fair showing of his tone poems as well as other works from his operas. Strauss' historical impact on the narrative of 'classical' music (or his 'importance' as some reporters would have it), rests on the programmatic element to his music. His tone poems are high-drama, high-concept and at times highly-strung – in this regard they represent a high-point of Romanticism. Fittingly then, Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) was paired with Beethoven's proto-romantic Piano Concerto no.1 in C at the Royal Festival Hall.
The Philharmonia Orchestra played the opening passages of Ein Heldenleben with an optimistic, free-spirited air. The main theme, introduced immediately into the tone poem by Strauss, runs far across the violins' range and has the occasional tilt towards passing notes and passing modulations. It was clear in the strings' unencumbered treatment of these more awkward melodic corners that the Philharmonia's reading of the piece would be absolutely emphatic and unequivocal.
Just prior to the brilliant Mahlerian interruptions of the woodwind, sounding quite mad through their semi-tonal interjections, the orchestra swelled for its first triumphant parade. During this passage, conductor Christoph von Dohnányi began to raise his palm to the brass section - too loud, he gestured. There are many fine words in Italian, French, and German, to describe dynamics, volumes and timbres. In the simplest of terms however, the brass section was just too loud. Unfortunately, after a few attempts, von Dohnányi gave in, dropped his palm and tacitly waved on the uncomfortable Romanticism that rings in the ears.
However, the performance was not without moments of delicacy. In particular the lead violin has a gift of a role, playing the voice of the hero's lover and adviser, whipping through quick coda-like runs, or wallowing in double-stopped cantabile odes. It is a nice touch that Strauss has a sizeable portion of the orchestra punctuate the solo violin's playing, in some instances creating a chamber-like feeling of intimacy. The principal first violin deserves considerable credit for his virtuosic performance, with all the subtlety and colourful playing one would hope for given such a prominent role.
A peculiarity of this piece is that it is celebratory from the start; it begins with a climax. It is as though the mountain has been scaled and we are looking on with wonder at our achievement. It therefore takes a wily and restrained performance to reign in the work's numerous excesses to form a digestible tone poem that makes any kind of narrative sense. For the most part, the orchestra was a little too hefty to accomplish this task. If you start at the top, it's down hill all the way.
In complete contrast was the Beethoven piano concerto before the interval, which was a more delicate and ornate rendering than I have heard before. Martin Helmchen clearly knows the piece inside-out and applied so many artistic touches to normally innocuous segments of material that the piece at times sounded like new writing. His codas were teasing and completely fresh, while his Largo was sensitive and considered. His technique and attention to detail were matched by the orchestra, completely precise in their entries. For instance, a finely articulated horn in the Allegro con brio carefully offset the right-hand progression of the piano's second subject, bridged from the first by a sustained oboe entry of great sweetness.
At times, the concerto sounded too heavily directed, with many passages standing out as unconventional, but this is hardly a problem when the musicianship is of such a high order.
Overall this was an enjoyable concert. It is a shame the thoughfulness and balance of the Beethoven was only applied sparingly to the overwhelming Strauss, which although exciting, lacked the narrative coherence that a tone poem requires.