It is said that whilst developing a successful career as a violinist, the young Emmanuel Krivine was advised by the distinguished conductor Karl Böhm to further pursue his passion for conducting. Thankfully, Krivine took heed of such advice, or we would not today have what is undoubtedly one of Europe’s finest conductors. Renowned for his musical expertise in the symphonic and French repertoire, it is refreshing however to hear such a conductor tackle something beyond his field: an evening of German Romanticism.
A good programme will unquestionably contribute to the success of a concert, and this was by all means a well-structured programme, providing a chronological progression through the Romantic period. Whilst on the surface this was not a hugely varied programme, stylistically or even nationally, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Strauss each offer a unique soundworld; though Romanticism abounds within each of the composer’s works, it is a different, and ultimately personal, Romanticism. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture does not profess a fervent passion like Strauss, but rather the tempered sensibility and traditional awareness of a composer on the cusp of the Romantic era. The delicacy and sensuality of Schumann’s Piano Concerto provides both a musical antithesis to Mendelssohn and a stylistic stepping-stone to Strauss’ lavishness and emotional opulence found in Ein Heldenleben.
Being in my opinion one of the most sublime and awe-inspiring pieces of classical music ever composed, I have listened to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture countless times, performed by countless orchestras both live and recorded. However, under Krivine’s baton and watchful eye, the Luxemburg Philharmonic Orchestra created a musical atmosphere I have yet to discover elsewhere. Excellent subtleties of tone and texture from the orchestra brought about a musical transcendence. The rippling melodies from the violins, the dark and looming cellos and the soaring wind section transformed the music into a mental image, one so vivid that the orchestra held the audience from the very first note. Whilst certain opening themes lacked the extra gush of energy to bring the music’s rising passages to the necessary climax, this was nonetheless a fantastic introduction to the evening.
Following a quick stage rearrangement, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire made his way onto the stage to perform Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It was clear from the opening melodies coming from the piano that Freire was in no hurry at all, taking time and care over each note. The passionate discourse between the piano and the alternating orchestral sections made for an intense first movement, contrasted by the languishing Andante grazioso that followed. The final Vivace, however, unfortunately fell slightly short of the mark set by the previous movements and appeared somewhat emotionally flat. This is due, largely, to the movement not lending itself to great stylistic and emotional variety, being rather a showcasing of pianistic virtuosity. However, a greater sense of energy and momentum from the orchestra would certainly have helped things immensely. Nonetheless, rapturous applause from the audience called back the pianist on stage to perform two encores, “Vogel als Prophet” (from Waldszenen, Op. 82) by Schumann and Jeunes filles au jardin by Frederic Mompou, a new discovery for me, and one I will eagerly explore, his music offering an extremely minimalist piano soundworld hinting at the music of Debussy and Satie.
The stage was then prepared during the interval for Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”), a work with a rich history, and exemplary of Strauss’ programmatic music. His last work before launching himself into operatic composition, Strauss’ desire to bring a narrative and story to life was clearly already brimming as he composed this work. Describing the journey of a hero, the piece introduces various characters, including the hero himself, the adversaries, and the hero’s maiden. With the motifs and themes in place, the orchestra then leads the audience on an epic journey of love, battles, peace, and ultimately renunciation of life and an embrace of the ethereal.
The interval appeared to have had a positive effect on the orchestra, having returned with new-found vigour and explosive energy. The central placement of the cellos between the violas and first violins (rather than on the end of the stage) proved an excellent decision, as the strength of the sound was focused and emanated from the middle of the stage, to be surrounded by the sprightly violin and wind melodies. Orchestral leader Haoxing Liang performed stunningly as he navigated the fiendish solo violin passages representing the hero’s maiden (inspired by Strauss’ wife Pauline). The frantic violin passages seemed to possess Liang as he literally leapt off his seat and stamped his foot in an attempt to control the music. Liang set an example, and the orchestra followed, bringing to life the narratives of Strauss’s music perfectly, and setting the audience wild with applause.
A quick encore by Krivine acted as a palate-cleanser for the audience, changing from Richard to Josef Strauss and a little polka to finish an undeniably successful evening.