Composed in under a month in 1945 against the backdrop of a burning, war-torn Dresden, Strauss’ Metamorphosen provided the perfect opening to a concert which explored themes of desolation and mourning. Commissioned by Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, Metamorphosen is a composition for 23 strings, inspired by Goethe’s poem ‘Niemand wird sich Selber kennen’ (‘No one can know himself’). Inverting the classic idea of metamorphosis as positive self-discovery, the piece might be seen not only as Strauss’ mournful response to the destruction of his beloved Bavarian Opera House, but a statement questioning war and the darker side of human nature. A quotation of the funeral march from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony adds to the dark, brooding quality of the music, which slips between chamber and fuller symphonic textures before building to a dramatic climax. Pausing on a single sustained note, the music then falls away, to a sinister and unreconciled ending. The performance was sensitive and effective, and orchestra leader Lesley Hatfield should be recognised in particular for her exceptional performance.

Thomas Dausgaard, © Morten Abrahamsen
Thomas Dausgaard,
© Morten Abrahamsen

Following the dramatic and emotional Metamorphosen, the orchestra was joined on stage by tenor Ben Johnson for an equally emotionally stimulating performance of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (1901-2, rev. 1905). Based on the folk poetry of Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) written after the death of his son, the songs do not form a song-cycle in the strictest sense (the songs vary in orchestration, scale and range and one was completed a year after the others), but are nevertheless frequently performed together. Johnson chose to perform ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ (‘Look not at my songs’) first and this was admirably executed. This was followed by the more delicate ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’), which has a sparser texture, and the darker ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’), which omits the strings entirely. Despite a charismatic performance by Johnson and faultless pronunciation, it was slightly disappointing that the orchestra dominated the voice towards the end. Mahler’s love song to his wife, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (‘If you love beauty’, orchestrated by Max Puttnam) followed, before the first half was concluded with ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world’), the most elaborately scored of the songs, including harp and cor anglais. Despite the pervading theme of transience and darkness, there is a warmth to these songs which was aptly captured by Johnson, demonstrating his potential and deserved position as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.

Following an awe-inspiring first half, it was a pure delight to experience a second half with, if possible, an even greater emotional pull. Sibelius intended his Symphony no. 4 to be a testament to his dislike of the dramatics of late-Romantic style. He therefore aimed to create a compressed sonority, devoid of the ‘circus’ of late Romanticism. The condensed nature of the symphony; the relatively small orchestra and few loud climaxes, has led to descriptions of its severity and rigid logicality. Musicologist James Hepokoski has described the symphony as ‘despairingly contemplative’ and ‘irretrievably lonely in tone’. Yet the emphasis on bleakness, particularly of the first movement, ignores moments of lightness such as the flurry of horn fanfares in the first movement and the dancing oboe solo of the Allegro molto vivace. The extreme intensity of the third movement is balanced by the light, almost childish sound of the glockenspiel in the final movement, although this brings only fleeting relief before it is overpowered by great swathes of sound, as the piece is brought to its conclusion.

Given the themes of the concert, this could have been a very sombre affair. Yet the sensitive performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, guided by the dynamic leadership of conductor Thomas Dausgaard, engaged the audience with a world of subtler emotions throughout. As a visually exciting conductor with a clearly excellent rapport with the orchestra, the reasons for Dausgaard’s critical acclaim are obvious. The rapturous applause of the audience was well deserved.