Despite the fact that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was only founded in 1949, the year of Richard Strauss’ death, the orchestra has long had an affinity for the composer’s orchestral works. Under the baton of their long-time chief conductor Mariss Jansons and joined by soprano Diana Damrau, the orchestra presented two of Strauss’ greatest orchestral showpieces from either end of the composer’s career. With orchestra, conductor and soloist all intimately familiar with Strauss’ idiom, it provided one of the most thrilling evenings of his music heard in London in a long time.

Diana Damrau, Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian RSO
© Peter Meisel

The Four Last Songs, composed at the age of 84 and premiered posthumously, present the composer at his absolute peak as an orchestrator and are suffused with autumnal warmth. Though the songs were premiered by the great dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad, sopranos of all fachs (and the occasional tenor) have taken on the work with success. Diana Damrau has performed practically every operatic role Strauss wrote for coloratura soprano, from Zerbinetta and Sophie to Die ägyptische Helena’s Aithra and Die schweigsame Frau’s Aminta. Damrau’s voice has since gained in amplitude and strength, allowing her to successfully take on heavier operatic roles. This was fully in evidence from the opening lines of Frühling, displaying a satisfying rich lower register that cut through Strauss’ turbulent orchestration with ease. Damrau’s newfound lyrical strength was also in full display in September, allowing her to spin Strauss’ seemingly endless lines with expansive power. Nevertheless, her voice maintains the silvery sheen and ease of movement that she is famous for – the highlight was Beim Schlafengehen, in which she responded to the heavenly violin solo with an effortlessly gleaming sound as the vocal line soared higher and higher. If Damrau’s reading lacked a certain repose or stillness, that surely will come with time.

Jansons and the BRSO never let us forget, however, that the orchestra is every bit as important in these songs. From the restless string arpeggios that open Frühling to the final piccolo trills that closer Im Abendrot, Jansons presented a spectacularly powerful yet transparent reading of the work. As always with Strauss, various instrumental solos dominate the work and were flawlessly rendered, from the gleaming horn postlude in September to the ecstatic violin solo that forms the heart of Beim Schlafengehen. However, it was the orchestra’s coherence and ensemble that was most impressive, with swirling waves of sound that only occasionally overwhelmed the soloist. The postlude to Im Abendrot was taken daringly slowly, with impeccably tuned piccolo trills that dissipated into the air like smoke.

The excellence of this performance, however, was completely overwhelmed by the performance of Ein Heldenleben that came after the interval. Jansons and the BRSO presented a perfectly structured, poised account of Strauss’ early tone poem. Heldenleben is a piece that can too easily come across as episodic and bombastic, but Jansons’ meticulous control assured that the work came across as a coherent whole. The climactic moments never lost their satisfying punch though, with a particularly effective build-up to the recapitulation that had the audience on the very edge of their seats. The BRSO was absolutely on top form, the heroic opening theme played with astonishing clarity and strength. The fiendishly difficult extended violin solo, depicting the hero’s companion, was performed with an ideal blend of coquettishness and lyricism, and the woodwind solos, all snarls and shrieks, depicted the hero’s adversaries with great character. It was the tutti passages, though, that impressed most in their power and transparency, and the final E flat major chords overwhelmed the hall with glorious sound. Lest we think the BRSO can only play Strauss, Jansons and the orchestra offered an intensely moving rendition of Sibelius’ Valse triste as well as some raucous Strauss as encores. Nevertheless, the evening will be remembered for the BRSO’s absolute supremacy in the works of Richard Strauss.