“I am the last mountain of a large mountain range,” declared Richard Strauss towards the end of his life. Thursday night's Seattle Symphony program, led by Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, combined the metaphorical mountain-climbing the composer depicted in Eine Alpensinfonie with the Four Last Songs.

Thomas Dausgaard © Per Morten Abrahamsen
Thomas Dausgaard
© Per Morten Abrahamsen

Aside from the song Malven, the Four Last Songs of 1948 were Strauss' final completed composition, although the title was conferred posthumously by the publisher, and they are suffused with the attitude of valedictory stock-taking likewise apparent in the quote above. 

But they need not be limited to it. This performance, featuring the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, was notable for expanding the emotional range of the four songs beyond the dusky, autumnal glow that has become their stereotype. Performing the songs in the usual sequence – the one in which Boosey published them after Strauss' death (which differs from the order of composition) – Dausgaard and Barkmin started off with a wondrously youthful gust of spring-like energy for Frühling. Especially striking were the sensuous, fragrant undercurrents the conductor teased out of the orchestra, while Barkmin soared blissfully, bringing home the poem's sense of renewed hope and reawakening. 

Strauss calls for a large orchestra in these songs, and the sheer size of the ensemble behind the singer looked even more impressive than usual, enhanced by a ten-foot-long thunder sheet suspended in the percussion (in place for the programme's second half). But Dausgaard negotiated a consistently judicious balance so that, together with Barkmin's own large and powerful instrument, the vocal lines sailed with limpid clarity and made their full impact. Beyond that essential task, the conductor paid heed to Strauss' shifting harmonic micro-climates, alert to niceties of dynamic shading and the telling glints of  solo instrumental phrases. 

Having been deeply impressed by Barkmin's performance as Chrysothemis in a concert performance of Elektra in 2015 at Carnegie Hall (her reputation as a Straussian is well-deserved), I marveled at the further refinement of her top range here. She brought a softer, more-even bloom to her high-lying phrases, always shaping the line with focus and attention to the poetry. “Und die Seele unbewacht” in Beim Schlafengehen, for example, became a turning point in the whole sequence, radiant and intense. Cordula Merks, serving as concertmaster, continued the thread with an eloquently voiced solo; Jeff Fair brought golden tone to his parallel solo in September.

All of these gathered details amplified the end-of-the-road point ultimately reached in the final poem, Joseph Eichendorff's Im Abdendrot (the only one not by Hermann Hesse, though the first to be composed). Barkmin's vivid presence had evoked youth remembered in the opening, but even by this point, when the singer perceives that the peace that has arrived may be death, she did not settle for above-the-battle resignation, suggesting instead a complex emotional mix that Dausgaard abetted with gentle dynamic dimming. To cap this stunning performance, Barkmin offered a gorgeous but unaffected account of Morgen.

There's an easy-to-sense rapport between the SSO and Dausgaard, who also serves as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony. This was the second of two back-to-back programmes together, following a particularly fine reunion the previous week, which presented a US première by the Scottish composer Helen Grime, an exquisite Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, and the Sinfonia espansiva by Dausgaard's fellow Dane, Carl Nielsen.

In the latter, I noted the conductor's uncanny ability to project a sense of the necessity of the musical trajectory: as if he's able to hold it all at once in his mind, from the very first upbeat, like a snapshot of a painting. That grasp not only of the structure itself, but of how to convey its unfolding, is all the more essential in a score like the Alpensinfonie, whose 48 minutes (in this performance) can seem at times to ramble too far from the main track. Indeed, Strauss even includes an episode of his putative climbing party getting lost amid the undergrowth and heading “on the wrong path”. 

Dausgaard mostly accomplished this by a kind of virtuoso delineation of Strauss' spatial sensibility in this score: his deployment of particular instrumental groups or kinds of texture to indicate changes of scenery. Still, even the conductor's unwavering commitment couldn't disguise the presence of recurrent passages of Straussian note-spinning and repetitive bombast. At the same time, Dausgaard treated the vast ensemble like the rich palette it is, expertly contrasting grandiose climaxes with chamber-like subtleties. The whispering string tremolos before the mighty storm shivered with delicious suspense. 

I was especially glad that Dausgaard approached this rather infrequently encountered score as more than a musical Baedeker's guide through some spectacular Alpine scenery. There was real Wagnerian heft, by which I mean that, as in the Ring, Strauss' nature depictions always seemed more than sonic mimicry via a Technicolour orchestra. Strauss actually conceived the work part as a sequel to Thus Spake Zarathustra (and even initially titled it The Antichrist: An Alpine Symphony): the challenge of ascending the peak is also a metaphorical one, akin to the Übermensch's creative challenge of mastering life itself. Here Strauss begins and ends with night, though, as opposed to the glaring daybreak of Zarathustra, which ends in enigma. Dausgaard's intensity made me think at moments as well of the cosmic ladder in Mahler's Third. 

Eine Alpensinfonie, the last of the composer's tone poems, is in any case a tour de force of orchestral cohesion and solo playing, and Dausgaard brought out the very best from the SSO, noticeably augmented with massive brass and percussion sections. (Before the concert began, tribute was paid to retiring trumpet player Geoffrey Bergler after his long service in the orchestra, and the fire from the brass here seemed to underscore the homage.) Oboist Mary Lynch's crucial solo in the section “At the Summit” was full of personality and character, one of many examples of the players' colourful individual contributions to the journey.