Following their acclaimed 'Bartók: Infernal Dance' series, the Philharmonia moved on Thursday to another of the twentieth century’s great composers: Richard Strauss. Strauss’s youthful tone poems, Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche were contrasted with his gloriously autumnal Four Last Songs, with Mozart’s 25th Symphony serving as a rather unexpected companion.

Melanie Diener, © Susie Knoll
Melanie Diener,
© Susie Knoll

Strauss wrote his first tone poem, Don Juan, aged just 21. The piece abounds with swagger and youthful exuberance, telling the story of a young nobleman who gives his life to the pursuit of pleasure. The famous upwards sweep of the opening bars characterises the Don in all his arrogant, anti-heroic glory; however, Dohnányi’s sedate tempo turned the lustful young man into a more world-weary roué. The piece suffered from a stagnant tempo throughout, despite some delightful solo playing, notably the very fine solos of concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and principal oboist Gordon Hunt, who expressively represented the surrender of one of the Don’s amorous pursuits. Dohnányi’s decision to reconfigure the string section led to a rare display of poor ensemble playing from the Philharmonia, made worse by the conductor’s attempts to enliven the tempo following his slow beginning.

From one of Strauss’s earliest works to his very last: the Four Last Songs were written as the 84-year-old composer bid farewell to his long musical life and are suffused with a sense of peace and acceptance. Soprano Melanie Diener performed with close attention to the nuances of the text, using her pure voce to particularly good effect in the fourth song, 'Im Abendrot' ('At Gloaming'). The songs represent all the skill of an experienced master, with an orchestral accompaniment that radiates warmth yet never dominates. The Philharmonia responded beautifully, with concertmaster Visontay’s breathtaking solo in 'Beim Schlafengehen' ('Going to Sleep') elevating the entire performance.

Following the interval came the rather odd choice of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 in G minor. Arguably his first mature symphony, it is written in the Sturm and Drang tradition, where the outer movements represent emotional 'storm and stress'. The performance was clean and yet lacking in vitality, partly due to the decision to minimise the use of vibrato throughout the orchestra and partly due to Dohnányi’s micromanagement of the Philharmonia’s excellent players, leading to a less sparkling performance than that to which the orchestra’s fans have become accustomed. The Symphony provided an enjoyably clear contrast to the heavier Strauss, highlighting the youthful elements of the tone poems whilst dispelling the shadow of death created by the Four Last Songs.

If Strauss’s Don Juan is presented as an anti-hero with redeeming features, then in the cartoon-like Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche we are presented with a very different main character. Merry prankster Till Eulenspiegel is a lovable rogue of German folklore, a fourteenth century peasant who enjoyed poking fun at the aristocracy. In this final piece the Philharmonia’s famous dynamism began to surface, the brass section responding with lively sarcasm to the more elegant playing of the strings.