Whooping horns, a single yellow rose and a velvety cushion of strings set the scene for a sumptuous tranche of highlights from Der Rosenkavalier in the London Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert commemorating Richard Strauss in his 150th anniversary year.
As in Sunday’s concert, Sir Mark Elder paired Strauss with Mozart, the Symphony no. 38 in D major, known as the “Prague” due to the city of its première in 1787. With its opening movement something of a pre-echo of the overture to Don Giovanni, another work for Prague, it has a similarly brooding atmosphere. The symphony was performed in what came across as a most collegiate atmosphere. Batonless, Elder opened his palm to invite his players in, politely cueing each section in turn. Tempi were never breakneck, but the second movement Andante had a purposeful, flowing pace.
Elder has excellent ‘historically informed’ credentials, regularly collaborating with The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but there were few concessions to ‘period practice’ here, other than the use of hard timpani mallets and a few vibrato-less string lines. In an era where mainstream orchestras play less Mozart and Haydn than ever, it was reassuring to hear a ‘big band’ performance of 18th century Classical repertoire done with such panache. With violins divided antiphonally (ten each of first and seconds), Elder teased out the lines in the Adagio opening, although the strings were slightly tentative until tempo was established. Wind playing was highly responsive, especially some charming oboe contributions, and the trumpets (not on risers) punctuated the outer movements without overwhelming the texture.
In the many performances of Rosenkavalier scheduled for the world’s stages this year, I doubt any opera company will field a finer trio of ladies in the leading roles than we had here. Although without an official ‘semi-staging’ tag, all three singers – highly experienced in their roles – acted with utter conviction. Indeed, shorn of any directorial interference or concept, the sincerity of their responses was all the more powerful.
Elder negotiated Straussian rubatos expertly, bringing a wonderful Viennese lilt to proceedings. Orchestral highlights included a fabulous clarinet solo from Andrew Marriner at the close of the first scene, as the Marschallin and Octavian coo pet names to each other, and an exuberant waltz to usher in the opera’s final scene which had members of the percussion department beaming in glee. Few orchestras can boast such a resplendent horn sound as the current LSO team, rejoicing through the opening bedroom scene ecstatically.
In glorious voice, and with splendid diction, Sarah Connolly’s Octavian encompassed the full range of emotions, from lovesick puppy to petulant teenager. Donning military jacket and with hair tied back for the ‘Presentation of the Rose’ scene, she brought off ‘love at first sight’ convincingly. Lucy Crowe’s was a perfectly acted Sophie, nervously anxious, swept off her feet by her knight, but especially in her look of terror towards the Marschallin in the great Act III finale. Crowe and Connolly intertwined vocal lines seductively in the Rose scene; Crowe’s crystalline purity on the A sharp rising to a B of “Wie himmlische” was sensational, causing goosebumps to prickle. Both were superb in the final duet “Ist ein Traum”, Crowe all the more admirably as she was clearly battling against a tickly throat.
Which brings us to Anne Schwanewilms’ Marschallin. Hers was a vocal masterclass in nuance and word painting, adopting a lovely dark tone – almost haughty – when warning Octavian not to philosophise. She displayed a wonderful range of vocal colours from ruminative to scornful and she acted so beautifully; you could clearly see as well as hear her pain. The moment when she reveals her fears to Octavian, confessing to getting up during the night to “stop the clocks”, was breathtaking. At times, she was almost too reflective, so immersed in her own emotions that Elder had to hush the LSO strings.
Schwanewilms had a regal air, aided by her scarlet gown which had just enough of a train to enable a majestic sweep of an exit. She was visibly moved at the end of Act I, realising that this is the beginning of the end for her and Octavian; a gentle touch of hands with an appreciative double bass player as she left the platform spoke volumes. The Marschallin’s final “Ja, ja” was exquisitely judged, inducing a tear from this listener. Goosebumps and a tear? A red letter-day indeed.