Romanticism found both its source and its end at Salle Pleyel on Tuesday night: Beethoven’s Egmont overture, incidental music for a heroic drama written by Goethe, and his Fifth Symphony, where it has been said that “Fate knocks at the door” – both works composed before 1810 – and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, created in 1948, when the last notes of Romanticism in music history were dying slowly in the dark 20th-century night.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste © Stina Gullander
Jukka-Pekka Saraste
© Stina Gullander

Conducting the WDR Sinfonieorchestra Köln, Jukka-Pekka Saraste began the Egmont overture with real energy for the first, mighty chords. Beautiful sounds emerged from strings, an acute but coloured forte, striking as if a herald enjoined us to pay attention to the story to be told on the stage. We were thrown into a deep romantic climate – oppression, desolation, anger, rebellion, heroism – but quickly, the first contrasts disappeared, and Count Egmont’s story began to bore us. In the brilliant final section, we lost the themes and counterpoint, and despite some interesting colours, we heard no more than a large, quite unclear ensemble running to the end, without distinct volumes or phrasing... It must be said nevertheless that expressivity and nuance do not seem easy to obtain in that minute-long authentic cadence.

The orchestra was joined by soprano Karita Mattila for Strauss’ Four Last Songs. The first two songs, “Frühling” (“Spring”) and “September”, sounded like a warm-up for the orchestra and the singer; Mattila’s voice did not come through the imposing orchestra, despite its warm colours and almost convincing dramatization. Uncomfortable in the low register as well as in the forte moments, Mattila faced technical difficulties with no help from a rather monotone orchestral accompaniment. But with the soft third song (“Beim Schlafengehen” – “Going to sleep”) and the shining fourth (“Im Abendrot” – “At sunset”), the soprano seemed to free itself, and she refound her mighty, moving timbre. More expressive, Saraste led his orchestra to a very poetic ending, still missing nuances, but well enveloping Mattila’s serene and appeasing song. Lacking meditation but yet more substantial, she asked “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“Is this perhaps death?”) before falling delicately asleep in the arms of the orchestra.

Back to the beginnings of romanticism after the break: the four ultra-famous notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony resounded in the hall. At quite a fast tempo, Saraste began an unbalanced piece, with some disappointments (uncontrolled tempi, lack of cohesion, far too loud timpani in the finale...) and some nice surprises in the details.

Several times we missed a better sound balance between themes and accompaniment: in the Andante, the cellos in the first theme’s second variation were totally muffled by the first violins; in the Finale, woodwinds in the horn call between the first two themes were lost under the strings. Like in Egmont, Saraste did not give clear beats, with his high gesture obscuring strong beats, maybe deliberately. Tempi seemed thus not to be fully controlled, especially in the first movement, but created some pretty contrasting effects when better held, like in the transition between the Scherzo and the Finale. This transition was extremely well led, from the moment the Scherzo returns to its first theme to the Finale’s first chord. In a long-held pianissimo, pizzicati in the strings created a very beautiful, suspenseful atmosphere.

Generally speaking, just like in Strauss’ Four Last Songs, nuances were somewhat better during the two last movements (the pianissimo beginning of the Scherzo, a quiet pause from the Scherzo into the Finale, viola counterpoint in the Finale’s second theme, among other moments). Saraste and his orchestra presented a beautiful end after two rather disappointing movements.

The Salle Pleyel stalls’ harsh acoustic may be a reason for these weaknesses, especially for Karita Mattila’s voice in the two first songs and for the balance of the woodwinds and cellos in the symphony. The WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln would have been better appreciated in a rounder, larger sonic atmosphere. Strauss’ songs and the end of Beethoven’s symphony proved that the concert could have been fantastic – but we missed the contrasts and originality needed to fully enjoy these ultra-well-known pieces.

Fortunately, Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédicte overture was Saraste’s choice for the encore and convinced us of the orchestra’s talent: bright and fluid, the piece was an enlightening end to the concert.