The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House rarely gets out of its pit, but when it does, it plays at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie has a rather different acoustic to the Met – much more closely-held, much more intense – and its unforgiving glare occasionally presented one challenge too many for the MET Orchestra. Still, they acquitted themselves well in this matinée.

Michelle DeYoung © Christian Steiner
Michelle DeYoung
© Christian Steiner

The programme was classic Semyon Bychkov, who is currently engaged in a run of Verdi’s Otello at the Met proper, and natural big-orchestra-lets-its-hair-down fare. With the overture to Tannhäuser, it was immediately apparent that this orchestra has retained its ability to produce a deep-pile carpet of sound, one of the primary legacies of the James Levine decades. Indeed, the bassy rumble was too big for the violins to balance adequately, particularly in Strauss’ Alpensinfonie, which led to an overall sound picture that was sometimes murky. Nevertheless, in the Wagner Bychkov conjured a grand nobility for the themes of the pilgrims’ chorus, and even an intriguing sense of ritual. The Venusberg music was appropriately balletic, and the tension between the two – between sacred and profane redeeming love – was kept properly high throughout.

Michelle DeYoung was a late replacement for Eva-Maria Westbroek in Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, a cycle of five songs written just before Tristan und Isolde, which sets texts by Wagner’s half-forbidden mistress, Mathilde Wesendonck. These are, as Wagner himself put it, “studies for Tristan”, and the relationship is obvious in “Im Treibhaus”, which looks forward to the music-drama’s Act III prelude, and the concluding “Traüme”, which more or less anticipates the Act II duet. Here Bychkov again drew illuminating playing from the orchestra, particularly in “Stehe Still”, which in this conductor’s hands seemed to look back to another of Wagner’s great duets, Act I of Die Walküre. Bychkov also deftly showed the differences between the final Tristan version of the “Im Treibhaus” music and this eerier orchestration by his friend Felix Mottl, and he swelled the strings evocatively in the far from coy “Schmerzen”.

I’d rather not think of the searing metaphysics of Tristan as the direct product of a frustrated mind (or two) wracked by sexual and marital anguish, but I suppose one doesn’t take up Schopenhauer for bedtime reading without good reason. The links with Tristan rob these songs of some of their power, as the music-drama itself is impossible to forget, and Wesendonck’s verse seems hammy and earthbound in comparison with Wagner’s text. DeYoung, nonetheless, proved an able interpreter, treating these songs more as operatic excerpts than intimate Lieder. Even if there were slight intonation wobbles down low and consonants occasionally got lost, she inhabited each song whilst managing to restrain their overwrought character.

Strauss’ Alpensinfonie is a paean to something rather different to Wagner’s all-redeeming love: the Nietzschean values of, as the composer wrote, “moral purification through one’s own strength, emancipation through work, and the adoration of eternal, glorious nature”. It is perhaps the most Mahlerian of Strauss’ works, composed mostly after the death of Strauss’ friend, and is in part a celebration of the hills in which they walked, most famously before the premiere of Salome. What the Alpensinfonie absolutely cannot be in performance is just a pictorial hiking guide: it is too long and, too flabby, and too unremittingly heavy in orchestration to succeed if it is taken on those terms.

Mercifully, Bychkov clearly communicated the philosophical underpinnings of this sprawling work, and right from the very start, with anticipation and struggle in its opening dissonances. Indeed, this was a more obviously dissonant reading than one often hears, especially in the thickets of an ill-taken detour and during a storm that sat threateningly overhead rather than moved on by, welcome reminders both of the time that elapsed between Strauss’ early tone poems and this later work. Balances proved a little wayward, particularly with unnecessarily forward brass. The principal trumpet was unlucky to flub notes when at his most prominent and at his highest in terms of pitch, as were the horns more generally. But Bychkov’s free manner with rubato and his ability to navigate Strauss’ false summits without going overboard paid dividends, and there was a sense of transfiguration by the work’s close that defied its circular form.

***11