Richard Strauss’s tone poem Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”) appears on the face of it to be a musical illustration of a medieval legend – perhaps a knight in shining armour, overcoming evil. The expansive opening theme shouts of heroism, monsters threaten, then there is a tender portrait of his lady before he heads off into battle. Except it isn’t like that at all. The “hero” of Strauss’s poem is the composer himself, the monsters are the music critics of Vienna, and the hero’s lady is an affectionately honest portrait of Strauss’s wife Pauline.

Andrew Litton © Danny Turner
Andrew Litton
© Danny Turner

It’s hard to tell how serious Strauss is being with this piece; he wrote about wanting to provide a contemporary answer to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, and he ends his work in the Eroica’s key of E flat, but by casting himself as the hero and quoting from his own works, one suspects that he’s also having a bit of fun (albeit in a rather ponderous way). Andrew Litton conducting the Bergen Philharmonic brought out this side of Strauss’s tone poem, particularly in the grandiose opening which had an ironic lightness to it, and in the jabbering woodwind passages depicting the sharp-tongued music critics, which were full of humour.

Strauss’s portrayal of his wife is a beautiful character description, in the form of an extensive violin solo, by turns flirtatious, shrewish, angry and loving. Violinist David Stewart brought out every nuance of Pauline’s character, ending with an exquisite pianissimo. A clear and precise offstage trumpet fanfare then signalled the start of “The Hero’s Deeds of War” as Litton launched the full forces of Bergen Philharmonic into a thrilling cacophony, whilst maintaining enough control to prevent the music from collapsing into chaos. The piece winds down to the hero’s peaceful retirement, with occasional interjections from the “adversaries” in the form of muted tubas. Hege Sellevåg’s cor anglais solo here was a real treat, the tune rolling out in one long smooth phrase, and the wonderful sound of the big brass chords that close the work evoked Beethoven in their simple solemnity.

It would, of course, have been too obvious to pair Ein Heldenleben with Beethoven’s heroic Third Symphony, so instead we had Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, written just before the symphony, and played this evening by the young Norwegian soloist, and former BBC New Generation Artist, Christian Ihle Hadland. His playing was deliciously crisp and clear, even in the fastest passages of the cadenza, every single note was distinct. Andrew Litton matched Christian Ihle Hadland’s lightness of touch in the first movement with a delicate, clipped style, with neatly balanced phrases that accentuated Mozart’s influence on Beethoven’s early writing. This lightness worked well in the outer movements, but the slow second movement needed greater depth – both orchestra and soloist were too restrained here, and the piece had a rather icy chill to it. The third movement Rondo was full of spirit, driven on by some excellent pizzicato string playing.

The Bergen Philharmonic opened their concert very aptly, with a piece by an English composer that evoked their homeland. Delius took regular holidays in Norway and an early meeting with Grieg had helped Delius on his way to becoming a serious composer. His symphonic poem In the Mountains was begun during a walking holiday with Grieg, and the Norwegian’s influence is clear, particularly in the mysterious opening on the lower strings, and in the horn and oboe solos. Litton gave the work a broad sweep, with a steady pulse, and the work was perfectly suited to the fresh, vigorous sound of the Bergen Philharmonic’s strings. A heroic false ending gave way to a surprising little coda and a moment of calm before the final chords.

Litton treated us to two British encores: Touch her soft lips and part from Walton’s score for Henry V brought us gently down to earth after the noise and excitement of the Strauss, and a boisterous performance of the Tarantella from Britten’s Soirées Musicales gave all the sections one last chance to shine.

***11