A sombre programme of four substantial works, part of the London Philharmonic Orchestra's series Belief and Beyond Belief, nevertheless had something of showbusiness about it, thanks to the charismatic presence of John Mauceri. Each work was entertainingly introduced by the conductor, giving insights into their genesis and meaning, as well as some witty and concise anecdotes. The heavyweight programme was certainly given a lift by this addition to the normal concert procedure.

John Mauceri © Columbia Artists Management Inc
John Mauceri
© Columbia Artists Management Inc

The evening kicked off with a rarity, an orchestration of Bach’s organ Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV552 (St Anne), by Schoenberg. Arranged in the late 1920s when the composer was all guns blazing in producing new work and advocating his 12-tone technique, it appears that these arrangements produced in parallel, the most famous being of Brahms' G minor Piano Quartet, were a way of grounding himself in the tonal tradition that he was trying to overturn. However, this Bach reworking isn’t as successful as the Brahms, and neither is it as interesting as the Webern transcription of the Bach Ricercar also composed around that time. But it makes for a good concert opener, with the extravagant colours of the Prelude sometimes having the opposite effect of illuminating the counterpoint that Schoenberg wanted, by drawing attention to its own colouristic virtuosity. In the Fugue, the very large orchestral effects were more telling and as the music builds up the orchestra even has flashes of sounding like an organ, creating an odd disjointed effect. All this was beautifully paced by Mauceri and played confidently by the LPO, the obsessive gradations of dynamics in the score carefully observed.

The second rarity of the evening was a poised and detailed performance of the suite from Hindemith’s 1938 ballet Nobilissma visione. Indeed, any performance of a Hindemith work in the concert hall is a rarity now. Once considered an equal and rival of Schoenberg’s in the Austro-Germanic musical world, and as important as Stravinsky, his reputation has unjustly fallen away since the 1950s. He must be one of the most unfairly neglected of all 20th-century composers. This ballet suite is one of the best pieces to use to show his considerable skills in creating atmosphere through his version of tonal harmony and melody. It belies the criticism of his works being heavily scored. You would be hard pressed to find a more luminous and delicately scored work in the repertory. Again Mauceri found just the right tempi throughout. The LPO string were particularly pure sounding and the brass round, rich and restrained, only letting rip in the grand Passacaglia finale.

Leopold Stokowski's "synthesis" of Act 3 of Wagner’s Parsifal that followed was a revelation, managing to capture the spirit of the whole four hour opera and many of its leitmotifs in twenty minutes of glorious music. There was never a sense of foreshortening, with the hypnotic effect of the opera's unfolding still somehow retained. Here Mauceri created a sense of having found just the right pace so that every extraordinary harmonic masterstroke registered and the opera's profound impression of universality was achieved.

Very unusually, the concert ended with a performance of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs. Presented effortlessly in the full glamour of their luscious orchestral palette by Mauceri and the on form LPO, this exceptional performance was illuminated by the impassioned and vocally stunning presence of Angel Blue. All the technical difficulties in the score were as nothing to this singer, her voice wonderfully even throughout the registers without any sense of strain. Youthful and fresh in the first song Frühling, she was also able to dig deep and find right feeling of world weary contentment in the final song Im Abendrot. A moving end to an evening to remember and cherish.