Concert halls and opera houses all over the world are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’ birth. Last weekend the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, led by its chief conductor, Marc Albrecht, paid him tribute with three works that explore the biggest themes in an oeuvre brimming with big themes: life and death.

Marc Albrecht © Ilja Keizer
Marc Albrecht
© Ilja Keizer

The expansive scope of Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) belies the fact that Strauss wrote it when he was only in his mid-twenties. In it, he imagines an artist on his deathbed. Memories of his youth transport him back in time while he tries to cling on to life. Death wins, but brings with it salvation and transfiguration. Albrecht successfully captured the febrile energy of this work, with its death rattle Largo movement and its tumultuous struggle between life and death. The higher strings could have savoured the nostalgic flashbacks more but, apart from one skiddy post-climatic landing, this was an engrossing account. The terrific lower strings, brooding and inexorable, drove the piece forward and the brass played the eye-flinching life-and-death clash cleanly and with maximum impact.

Soprano Emily Magee then joined the orchestra for the Vier Letzte Lieder, four songs about the twilight of life completed shortly before Strauss died. Although separated by a full artistic lifespan, these two works are connected thematically and musically. At the end of the last song, “Im Abendrot” (In the Twilight), Strauss cites the transfiguration theme from Tod und Verklärung, ending in sombre reconciliation with death, hope fluttering in the trilling flutes. Emily Magee's distinctive soprano, with its dark honey timbre, deepened the autumnal kaleidoscope of the songs. The slightly veiled quality of her middle voice added a faraway, elusive dimension, which suited the sense of time slipping away in the poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff. “Frühling” (Spring) began rather tentatively, as singer and orchestra adjusted to each other’s volume. Once the balance had been calibrated, the voice flowed richly above the orchestra, which played with transparent detail and subtle shading. Ms Magee’s voice does not so much soar on the Straussian line as float and throb in suspension. Her articulation and phrasing gained poignancy in the last two songs. The surrendering “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to Sleep) was especially moving, while Vadim Tsibulevsky’s violin solo sang equally affectingly.

It is easy to command attention with the iconic sunrise fanfare at the start of Also sprach Zarathustra, ingrained in popular culture by Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It takes, however, a cohesive vision of the work to sustain a gripping narrative from start to finish. Albrecht has that vision, and the orchestra to realise it. Strauss composed his homage to Nietzsche in his thirties, basing the nine sections of his symphonic poem on the treatise Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which the prophet Zoroaster leaves his mountain solitude to proclaim that God is dead and exhort mankind to unleash its full emotional and intellectual potential. The composer did not try to translate Nietzsche’s ideas into music but, in his own words, to convey “an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman”. To depict the confrontational tension between mankind and nature, he uncomfortably juxtaposed a C major nature theme with a humanity motif in B major. This harmonic tussle has been called the “World Riddle” theme, referring to the metaphysical question of what constitutes the physical universe and human thought. Lofty musical objectives indeed, yet it is its audacious, euphoric optimism that ensures the work's continued popularity.

Maestro Albrecht gave a vigorously lucid and flowing reading of the score. The cosmic sounds of the opening merged seamlessly into the second movement, “Of Those in Backwaters”, a murky image of intellect befuddled by religion. Once more the dusky lower strings distinguished themselves. The glittering violins rode the virile sweep in “Of the Great Longing” and “Of Joys and Passions”, and the woodwinds played with great suppleness. The performance never lost momentum, even in the slower passages such as the “The Grave Song”, which surged forward with undulating movement, each orchestral section emerging with great clarity. In “The Convalescent” the unfaltering brass poured the returning sunrise motif, hot and blazing, into the grateful acoustics of the Concertgebouw. Albrecht’s take on the frivolous Viennese waltz in “The Dance Song” was a humorously joyful rise-and-fall lilt: frivolity as a necessity of life. Strauss’ ending, following Zarathustra’s combustive triumphal song, is less confident than Nietzsche’s. He refrains from granting dominance to either the nature or humanity chord, leaving them gently oscillating next to each other. The composer might not have aspired to solve any philosophical riddles, but this stupendous performance certainly left one believing anything is possible.