If Richard Strauss did indeed boast of his illustrative skill that he could differentiate musically between a knife and a fork, he at least comes close in his incidental music for Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, where he brings a whole multi-course dinner to aural life. And if I had known that Kirill Petrenko and the Bayerische Staatsorchester were going to make me salivate quite so much over Strauss’s depiction of the fish, lamb and quail, I might have waited to eat until after the concert rather than rushed a meal down before the early start (in UK time) of their latest live stream from the stage of Munich’s Nationaltheater.

Kirill Petrenko and the Bayerische Staatsorchester
© Wilfried Hösl

This feast was the culmination of the 13th and last in the Bavarian State Opera’s weekly Monday concerts, a series that has been streaming Lieder, chamber music and dance live to a disembodied, online audience since the beginning of Germany’s lockdown in March while most other performance spaces around the world have been forcibly dark. The concert was also the most ambitious of the season, in the number of musicians involved; in the extent of the programme, which offered a menu encompassing a symphony, a song cycle and two extended suites, including the Strauss; and in welcoming a real audience of a hundred lucky paying punters, who were confined to the upper tiers of the auditorium and provided a welcome return of applause to the theatre. 

Strauss’s concluding Das Diner had been sumptuous enough, but the performances of his earlier movements had been no mere hors d’oeuvres either, with the orchestra of some 30-plus musicians – regenerated in personnel for this item after some less-than-perfect playing earlier in the evening – here at the top of its game. It found the master Straussian Petrenko in his element, too, and he coaxed some delicious playing from wind and string soloists alike. During one of the extended breaks between works (largely filled with trailers for next season’s premieres), Intendant Nikolaus Bachler described Strauss as one of Munich’s “House Gods”, and it was easy to see this performance as a bountiful offering to its beloved deity.

Kirill Petrenko and the Bayerische Staatsorchester
© Wilfried Hösl

The concert had begun with a very generous appetizer from the Staatsorchester’s Student Academy in the form of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, performed, to keep things appropriately sanitised from their colleagues, on a special forestage built over the pit and into the first few rows of the stalls. It was hard to distinguish the playing here from that heard from the professionals at the end of the programme and there was very much the feeling of chamber music writ large about the contribution of every solo instrumentalist. Petrenko’s conducting, meanwhile, exposed the symphony’s four-movements-in-one form as a single, unified span of motivic exploration.

Next, Strauss’s borrowings from Lully in the Gentilhomme suite were foreshadowed by Stravinsky’s reworking of Pergolesi in his suite from Pulcinella, another neo-Baroque chamber-orchestra work that gave the BSO’s instrumental soloists – not least a musically agile trombonist – a chance to shine after a slightly untidy start. 

Both players and soloist Jonas Kaufmann then made more of a meal of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. The tenor sounded out of sorts from the start, singing his first phrases distinctly flat and letting out too many of his tell-tale crooning swoops between notes. A delicate touch seemed to elude him, but he was better, and sounded more in control of his voice, when given the opportunity to belt things out in the third song. Maybe the intimacy of Schoenberg’s chamber arrangement of the score discombobulated him, and it didn’t help that things went awry in the final song when the players got a bar out of sync with each other in a passage where the composer pointedly alternates between major and minor modes of the same key.

Despite this, the Strauss and Schoenberg trumped everything and the appetite to return to Munich in person as soon as one can has been well and truly whetted...

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

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