The best of this concert was utterly inspiring. And the worst...puzzling. The best was Diana Damrau in Strauss’ Four Last Songs. She has described the songs in a recent radio interview as “moments of reflection, of feeling, in which [the singer] must act almost like a medium”. That reflectiveness was indeed there, but it is only part of the story. Her voice now has a lightness, purity, poise, control, tonal security and focus which evoke the supreme interpreter of these songs (arguably), Gundula Janowitz. In the same interview Damrau said that orchestra should “shimmer and be transparent”, and definitely not be like “a thick sauce”. Antonio Pappano and the London Philharmonic Orchestra achieved that throughout –magically. From my seat, the balance between singer and orchestra seemed ideal.

Diana Damrau
© Rebecca Fay

With Damrau one also hears every word. She has described how she approaches the moments of hushed rapture: “You don’t retreat back into a piano, you step in to it”. And that was exactly the manner in which she blessed the final words of love and devotion in the first song, “deine selige Gegenwart” (your blessed presence). There was also a thoughtful and winning approach to making words stand out from the melodic line and to be given meaning. The magical and evocative word “Zauberkreis” (circle of magic) in Beim Schlafengehen had just the right level of emphasis to bring vividness and wonder to it. And leader Peter Schoeman and first horn David Pyatt certainly gave everything I could have ever wanted to their moments in the solo spotlight.

In Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) from 1903/4, Pappano brought out the contrast in the to-ing and fro-ing between bustle and langour extremely well. As an Anglo-Italian himself, Pappano seemed to be on a mission, to really believe in the heft of this work and, right from its opening bars here, very reminiscent of Strauss’ Don Juan. Later, principal viola David Quiggle brought poetry to his solo episode, and the soloist/orchestral balance was again judged to perfection. It all made me very curious to hear Pappano conduct Strauss’ Aus Italien.

The real puzzler, however, was Brahms’ Symphony no.2 in D major. For me there was too much which simply didn’t work. Visually, I could see exactly where Pappano was heading. Watch Carlos Kleiber conducting Brahms and many of his gestures are the same. The sweeping broad-brush arm movements try to elicit an instinctive, in-the-moment kind of performance. Pappano virtually never helps the pulse or the lilt, it is all about letting it happen.

The most extreme reading was the second movement. It was Brahms approached via the entry point of one of his songs like O kühler Wald where all that matters is the sustaining of a big-hearted, full-voiced lyrical line. But whereas Kleiber was wonderful in bringing in moments where the music can breathe and become genuinely light-footed, the overall effect here was just too heavy, brooding, even gloopy.

The third movement was also too leaden, and Pappano chose to leave the orchestra to finish it off on their own, with the result that the final string pizzicato sounded more like a handful of pick-up sticks falling on the ground than the precisely placed chord it surely needs to be. In the last movement the detail and the poetry of several of the gentler, rhythmically capricious wind-led episodes was skated over. Pappano seemed impatient to get back to the chase, and to being, well, ponderous.

The LPO did well to bring out such a sizeable audience at the end of a week when most people have reined in their ambitions, and either looked for reasons to stay indoors, or found excuses to play in or take photographs of the snow. The RFH audience mostly seemed to be loving it, but for me it was a very uneven evening indeed.