Shakespeare’s quatercentenary in just a few months time is already beginning to cast a long shadow. As the opening work in the second concert of their Barbican residency the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester chose to open with the earliest of Richard Strauss’s single-movement tone poems, Macbeth. Any listener hearing this work for the first time would certainly note sufficient tell-tale signs of the composer in question, but where is the obvious connection with the Scottish play? It is a reflection of Strauss’s still maturing talent that although the piece is full of theatrical effects, including a large range of percussive elements, and repeated heroic flourishes from the brass, opportunities presented by the structure of the play are rarely exploited in musical form. The composer certainly struggled with the composition, revising it over several years, and was needled by the conductor Hans von Bülow’s tart reaction to the original ending in which a triumphal march associated with Macduff brought the piece to a triumphant conclusion in D major: “Who cares about Macduff in a tone poem called Macbeth?”

Riccardo Chailly © Gert Mothes
Riccardo Chailly
© Gert Mothes

But place a conductor of the calibre of Riccardo Chailly in front of a hugely responsive orchestra like the Gewandhaus, with their supple strings, beautifully blended wind and pin-point sharpness of the brass, and any thoughts about the inadequacy of the composer’s response to the folie à deux of a Scottish upstart and his ambitious wife vanish into insignificance. The score is the darkest and most violent of all his tone poems and it is peppered with detailed markings, where appassionato and molto espressivo alternate with molto tranquillo, for instance. Not the least of Chailly’s qualities in approaching this rarely heard piece was his ability to peel back the layers of textural complexity and reveal a luminous transparency. The sepulchral gloom of the opening and the eerie effect of an off-stage snare-drum at the end were beautifully realised by the players, and Chailly’s Italian heritage revealed itself here – and elsewhere too – in the cantabile sound of the soaring string lines.

By the time Strauss came to compose Also sprach Zarathustra a few years before the end of the nineteenth century, he was already under the spell of cultural pessimism cast a little earlier by the German philosopher Nietzsche. Strauss himself described his tone poem as being “freely based on Friedrich Nietzsche”, and it is perfectly possible to view this piece as absolute music in much the same way that Macbeth can be appreciated without any specific reference to Shakespeare. Indeed, Strauss insisted he had made no attempt to translate philosophy into music, but merely wished to convey an idea of the progression of the human race from its origins through its many phases of development right up to an exemplification of the Nietzschean concept of Superman. The work starts and ends with almost nothing, a rumbling of double-basses at the beginning and ethereal sounds from high-lying wind and low pizzicato strings at its conclusion, a well-nigh perfect rendering of the course of human nature, from dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

One of Chailly’s other great gifts is his ability to energise the orchestra, with a big sweeping beat and an expressive but judiciously used left hand. And when the Leipzigers are at full roar, as in the C major opening section depicting sunrise, or as viewed by the 23-year-old Béla Bartók on hearing it performed in Budapest in 1904, “a flash of lightning”, they are a mightily impressive collective instrument. In this performance there was no point-making, and no wilful mannerisms or idiosyncratic indulgences to disturb the organic flow, even if there were a few minor niggles. The bells failed to open out properly in the Barbican’s acoustic and the unavoidable use of an electronic organ robbed this opulent work of its ultimate sumptuousness.

Strauss, like Tchaikovsky before him, adored the music of Mozart, so on paper at least the idea of separating the two tone poems with a Mozartian interlude seemed attractive. With a considerably reduced string complement for the accompaniment in K216 the soloist Christian Tetzlaff was able to project his lines without undue strain. However, he only fully revealed his expressive depth in the adagio. This is Così country, where Tetzlaff created the sense of a balmy summer’s night, with a gentle breeze blowing in from the wind and the murmuring strings, and where breathtakingly reduced dynamics almost made time stand still. But in the opening and closing movements, both marked allegro, the basic tempo was far too brisk, robbing the music of its essential grace and radiance. Part of the charm of a country fiddler’s folksiness comes from his wit and love of whimsy, but in the Strassburger episode of the finale there was little evidence of the composer’s impish and sunny side. This was Mozart without a smile.