George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children and Richard Strauss' Sinfonia domestica would seem to have little in common beyond the fact that they both feature children in one way or another. That it was the venerable 85-year-old Zubin Mehta who brought them together in the same concert programme is noteworthy in itself – he has a long-established reputation in the German Romantics, but somewhat less so in the byways of American modernism.

Zubin Mehta
© Tobias Hase

Crumb's work of 1970 is a cycle of five Lorca settings, for soprano, boy soprano and idiosyncratic chamber ensemble. It begins and ends with the soprano (and latterly also the treble) singing into the body of a prepared piano. In between singers and instrumentalists get to explore a wide range of sounds beyond their usual remit: the three percussionists also sing, the oboist picks up a mouth organ, the pianist takes to a miniature toy version of his instrument and the main soloist herself hammers a pair of chimes. The result is a fascinating phantasmagoria of sounds, in which space and stillness are as vital as incident and motion. Soprano and modern-music specialist Mojca Erdmann revelled in the score's extended vocal demands, as did the sadly unnamed treble, credited simply as a “soloist of the Tölz Boys Choir”. Under Mehta's attentive direction, soloists from the Munich Philharmonic each made telling contributions to the whole, especially oboist Marie-Luise Modersohn's keening melodies, with their echoes of Mahler – perhaps that was another connection to the late-Romantic sound world of the second half of the programme.

Zubin Mehta and the Munich Philharmonic
© Tobias Hase

Strauss' Sinfonia domestica is anything but domestic in terms of its scale and the forces required – some 35 wind and brass players for a start (not including the quartet of saxophones absent on this occasion). In its pumped-up grandiosity it is also unafraid of being vulgar, and I rather enjoyed the way Mehta gleefully gave in to this showy, even show-offy side of its personality while simultaneously keeping its truly symphonic progress in his sights, as Strauss weaves and develops his musical ideas associated with Papa, Mama and Bubi (the Strausses' young son Franz). Mehta also delighted in the music's wit and self-deflation, such as the double fugue that portrays the couple's bickering in almost war-like terms. 

The Munich Philharmonic played magnificently, and if the new concert hall of the Isarphilharmonie didn't provide quite the transparency of sound required for some of Strauss' thicker textures, it undoubtedly gave a sonorous boost to its many exhilarating climaxes. The orchestra's leader Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici spun silken lines in the important violin solos representing Strauss' wife Pauline, and there were equally characterful cameos from oboe d'amore and trumpet, among others.